Bed bugs are more than an inconvenience for Mid-Michigan ambulance companies

Published: Nov. 1, 2018 at 11:22 PM EDT
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(11/01/2018) - Mid-Michigan landed on Orkin's top 50 Bed Bug Cities' list this year, which causing some unique ripple effects.

Ambulances and emergency medical responders are unwittingly finding themselves in the middle of bed bug infestations when they go in to treat patients.

That sometimes means units have to be removed from service for decontamination to keep from spreading the annoying critters further.

The Flint-Saginaw-Bay City region ranked 38th on Orkin's list of the top 50 Bed Bug Cities for 2018. Local ambulance companies say they are noticing an increase in the number of calls where they encounter bedbugs.

For Jacob Wilkinson, an EMT for Stat EMS, suiting up for the job sometimes requires him to don a plastic bodysuit, learn how to use a high power steamer and search his rig closely for tiny stowaways with a black light.

"A lot of times we either find them on the patient, we find them in the house. Sometimes they get big, about the size of an apple seed. You can see them moving," Wilkinson said.

But in the majority of cases, he says the hospital will inform them afterwards that a patient they brought in has bed bugs, requiring them to go through the full decontamination process.

His colleague, Jose Hernandez, said decontamination is more than just an inconvenience:

"Not only does it take our trucks out of service, when you call your family and say, 'Hey, I'm going to be late because of bed bugs' they all freak out," said Hernandez.

Of the roughly 20 calls a week he responds to, Hernandez said one or two on average involves bed bugs. Decontaminating the rig afterward takes an hour.

"We're looking at about three to five times a week that our trucks are coming out of service to decon for bed bugs." said Chris Samon, the operations director for Stat EMS. "When it comes to serving our communities, we're losing a truck that would be in an area waiting for the next emergency call."

Samon said the next closest ambulance has to back fill.

"It actually is an issue," he said. "Trying to find ways to take care of it, whether your exterminators are coming, is probably the best thing we can do."

Steven Henson with Mobile Medical Response said his company tracks bed bug issues but hasn't noticed an appreciable increase.

Still, he encouraged patients to alert 911 dispatchers if they know about bed bugs in their homes so ambulance crews can take precautions before they enter the scene.

Decontaminating an ambulance during a shift is more costly for the time lost than the money it takes to complete the process, Henson said.

"We clean trucks everyday," he said. "That's not an issue. It's the time lost of that truck being out of service."

Genesee County Medical Control Authority Director Bruce Trevithick said he doesn't believe patient care has been compromised by bed bug issues, but the authority is taking steps to study this issue more closely,

"I'm not as concerned about it, simply because we do have a very high volume of ambulance companies and EMS units on the road, so filling those spots is usually pretty easy to do," he said.

The board, which oversees the work of private ambulance companies in the county, met last month to discuss the possibility of putting new protocol in place. However, board members decided to focus on educating providers and making sure they notify 911 when there's an exposure.

"And by flagging them and having 911 track them we may have a better sense of how often it happens," Trevithick said.

He said the authority plans to assemble a checklist of items providers should be aware of when they show up on those scenes.

Wilkinson and Hernandez, meanwhile, say they'll continue to suit up whenever necessary.

"You kind of get acclimated to it," Hernandez said. "Knowing that we come out of service, I'm able to decon. I'm able to change into another uniform."

Wilkinson said bed bugs are part of the job nowadays, but he wants them to stay there -- in the workplace and not come home with him.

"It is an issue," he said. "It's a dilemma we face. We don't want to take them home. We don't want to pass them to other employees, things like that."

See "Related Links" on the right side of this story for tips on how to get rid of bed bugs from a home.