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In rural Colorado, ambulance services are stretched thin – a pandemic adds more challenges

Some areas only have one ambulance in service at a time to cover thousands of people and hundreds of square miles.

LIMON, Colo. — They could use a lot more resources, but when you need them most, it’s their job to be there regardless of the challenges – rural ambulance services on the eastern plains of Colorado cover huge parts of the state, sometimes with only one crew on duty. 

The pandemic has only made it harder for crews to respond.

"It’s a challenge that we take on every day," said Rob Handley, EMS director with the Limon Ambulance Service. "I think a lot of the times folks don’t realize the adversity that comes along with rural living."

The ambulance service in Limon serves about 3,000 people in Lincoln County and beyond. They usually only have one ambulance and crew in service.

Resources and cash have always been stretched thin when it comes to emergency response in rural parts of the state. There are only three full-time employees here with a couple dozen volunteers ready to work when needed. 

"It’s over 500 square mile," said Handley. "During the first go-around we had maybe three in three months that were known COVID-positive people. Now we’re getting two or three calls a day."

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Though they don't transport COVID patients every day, those busy days come more often now. The number of COVID patients out in Limon is far fewer than any of the larger cities in the metro area. Still, the impact is big. 

"Out here it’s huge because we only have one crew on here," said Handley. "If something goes on where they have to leave the area, we always have people on background, or hopefully we do."

They're always on call, just in case another emergency comes in when the one ambulance in service is already out helping. Every time they transport a COVID patient, the ambulance has to be taken out of service to be cleaned and disinfected.

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For a while, the local emergency room in Hugo didn’t have the resources to treat COVID patients. They still have to transport the sickest people to Denver or Aurora, which takes several hours to do. That’s when that staff that’s on-call every day comes into play.

They could always use more resources. But, they’ll always respond when the call comes in.

"On a good day or a bad day, that’s what we do," said Handley. "It’s always about what’s doing the best for the patients."