11:09 AM

How COVID-19 Is Changing the Life of First Responders



A volunteer who doubles as the Dental Director for Horizon BCBSNJ details the challenges of staying safe while saving others.​

The dispatch call came into the Manasquan First Aid Squad around 1:00 a.m. for a patient who was feverish and having difficulty breathing. The patient needed an ambulance to take him to the ER. With the flip of a siren, Dr. Fred DiOrio and his fellow EMT were off into the night for a rescue in the COVID-19 era.

Fred’s wife and children are painfully aware of the risks he’s taking as a first responder. “They think I am a little crazy,” he confesses. “They ask me why I have to do it. They say I am not 23 years old even though I think I am. I tell them I do it because I can.”

Why does Fred – whose day job is Dental Director for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ) – do it? Why, especially when first responders have become among the most vulnerable to an aggressive and dangerous virus? He attributes his drive to his father, who was one of Newark’s Bravest – a firefighter for the Brick City in the 1960s when Fred was growing up.

“My plan was to follow in my father’s footsteps and become a firefighter,” he explained. He even took the civil service exam for the position – without his dad’s knowledge – at age 18. However, his dad would not have it; instead, he told Fred that he could “do more,” leading Fred to pursue a career in dentistry.

The pursuit to help others ultimately brought him to the Manasquan First Aid Squad, where for the last four years he has worked every Wednesday night shift and often weekends too. Fred responds to an average of 125 calls a year as a certified EMT. However, this year nothing is average.

Training for a new era

During the COVID-19 outbreak, First Aid squads operate under the guidance of the County Office of Emergency Management (OEM), which has been training first responders on how to operate safely.

“We received training on how to wear additional personal protective equipment (PPE), decontaminate (decon) the ambulance and our equipment,” Fred said. The training also covered how to respond to a call for someone experiencing common COVID-19 symptoms.

“With COVID-19, we suit up in protective clothing: biohazard gown, gloves, goggles and a mask. With a responsive patient, we hand them a surgical protective mask from a safe distance and calmly instruct them on how to put it on. We provide oxygen under the mask,” Fred said.

Now only two EMTs respond to a call, instead of four before the outbreak. Only one EMT enters the home. These new protocols are meant to minimize the exposure of first responders to a patient who may be positive for COVID-19.

During transport to the hospital, the door separating the driving compartment from the rest of the vehicle remains closed. At the hospital, patients are transported not to the ER, but to a COVID-19 staging area outside the ER. “We wear two sets of gloves and never remove the first set until we are back at quarters. We change the top pair of gloves many times while on a call,” Fred said.

When Fred gets home, he takes extra precautions. “I leave my shoes outside the door. I step into the laundry room. Everything comes off and goes right into the washing machine and I walk right into the shower,” he said.

A lifetime of service

Fred is no stranger to precautionary steps to stay free of viral infections. With gloves, masks, face shields and special glasses, Fred said, “dentists have been protecting ourselves for the last 30 years.”

Megha participating in First Tee

Fred in Honduras

After he obtained his DMD from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of NJ, Fred was commissioned as a Captain in the U.S. Army.

He was stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina for three years. Upon returning home to New Jersey, Fred set up his dental practice in Fairfield and at the same time, he served another 25 years in the Army Reserves. As a reservist, Fred served one weekend every month, and he was deployed at least once a year. These deployments were life-changing for Fred, as he flew on goodwill missions into small villages in Honduras and Guatemala to set up makeshift clinics. “People would walk for 25 miles just to be able to see us for both dental and medical care,” he said.

After Fred retired from the Reserves as a Lt. Colonel in 2013, he continued to look for ways to serve. He became certified as an EMT, joined the Manasquan First Aid Squad, and eventually ended his private dental practice to become Horizon BCBSNJ’s Dental Director.

Fred lives close enough to the Manasquan First Aid Squad so he can spend his night shifts on call at home. But it’s little comfort for his wife of 40 years, who is worried now that the coronavirus has claimed Monmouth County as a hotspot.

“My wife is not a fan of my endeavors because she worries about my safety. However, she has learned to accept my passion. It’s passion, compassion, and drive that make a difference in the lives of people we touch. I feel lucky to be able to make a difference. As my dad would often say, ‘The harder you work, the luckier you become.’”