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Colorado Springs and El Paso County EMTs are following a new triage protocol for suspected COVID-19 patients who call 911 to request transport to local hospitals.

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Ted Collas said Wednesday that the fire department and other providers — including American Medical Response — are using the new protocol so firefighters and paramedics can “identify COVID-19 patients or those who are suspected to have COVID-19 but who are able to manage their symptoms at home.”

His remarks came at an El Paso County Public Health press conference that provided updates on city and county efforts to fight the novel coronavirus.

Under the new protocol, paramedics and EMTs will evaluate patients’ symptoms and question them about their medical history to determine if they are at higher risk from the disease.

“There will be times … [when the first responders will] advise them that it’s not advisable for them to go to an emergency department by ambulance,” Collas said.

Those people will receive detailed information about seeking outpatient care, non-emergent testing and treatment, as well as information about help lines for additional information.

Collas said the protocol is a new directive “given to us by our medical direction team … in order to keep our community safe [and] in order to keep our health care workers safe in the pre-hospital setting as well as inside of the hospital.”

He said hospitals can be overwhelmed with patients who are actually able to manage their symptoms at home. Patients who don’t have COVID-19 can clog up emergency departments or become exposed to the virus if they are unnecessarily transported to hospitals.

“Our emergency department staff is working around the clock to take care of patients that are coming in that definitely need that emergency care,” he said.

Dr. Matt Angelidis, an emergency physician at UCHealth who is co-medical director for the CSFD and AMR, said the protocol will allow first responders “to screen patients for potential coronavirus symptoms or exposures and then guide treatment for those patients in a very detailed way.”

After initially screening patients for cough, upper respiratory symptoms, fever and congestion, first responders will screen for risk factors that include being elderly and having conditions such as heart, lung or kidney disease that might compromise their immune systems.

The process involves real-time communication with physician medical directors.

“If patients or our first responders don’t understand or have questions, we’re there and available to video conference or real-time conference with patients in their homes or at the site of the calls,” Angelidis said. “I expect that as our volume increases and we utilize this protocol, it will be a very important part of our community’s response.”