There’s a physical and mental toll that comes from serving as a paramedic in one of the states hardest hit by the COVID-19 virus.

“It just non-stop … it’s hard to breathe in the masks and it’s exhausting,” says Louis Imperatrice, a Missouri Southern sophomore who works as a paramedic for a hospital system in Camden County, N.J.

“We’re required now to wear full PPE – masks, gowns, gloves and goggles on every single call, whether it’s suspected to be COVID-19 or not,” he says. “We’re doing 12-hour shifts and coming into contact with between three and five positive cases per shift.”

Statewide, New Jersey has seen more than 131,000 infected by the pandemic, with more than 8,500 deaths.

But for Imperatrice, the crisis has solidified his belief in the important role paramedics and other first responders play.

After graduating from high school, Imperatrice joined the local volunteer fire department. During his time there, he said he became more interested in the emergency medical side of the job.

“I decided I wanted to become a paramedic and haven’t looked back,” he says.

With New Jersey moving toward requirements for paramedics to have a bachelor’s degree, he began investigating different programs available around the country.

“Not many programs offer a bachelor’s specifically in paramedic studies,” he says. “Missouri Southern had a great reputation. I was a little hesitant because of the distance learning, but the experience has been excellent. The instructors are great and it’s a really in-depth program.”

The current crisis has created a situation unlike any he’s seen in his 12 years as a paramedic.

“The call volume has gone down, but there are people who are not calling 9-1-1 when they get sick because they’re scared to go to the hospital,” Imperatrice says. “When patients do call 9-1-1, they’re really, really sick. The acuity of our patients is through the roof … higher than I’ve seen in my career.

“It’s difficult because I have a wife and 5-year-old daughter at home. I want to immediately hug my family, but I have to come in the house through the back laundry room. It’s taxing.”

During any type of disaster or wide-spread illness, the demands on the EMS and first-responder community is intense, says Ted Lee, director of Missouri Southern’s Emergency Medical Services program.

“These demands tax not only the providers but their families as well,” he says. “The mental, physical and emotional wear and tear on the providers are severe.

“Bachelor’s programs such as the one at MSSU helps students with the higher functioning and greater depth of subject matter to prepare them to assume leadership roles in their communities and to better respond to the needs of the residents who they serve.”

And that’s what it boils down to for Imperatrice.

“It’s just the new reality that we face every day,” he says. “Now more than ever, I know that we have to be patient advocates. I would like to pursue my master’s in public health, but I don’t think I could ever not be a paramedic.”

While many states are not seeing the type of rapid acceleration of COVID-19 as New Jersey, Imperatrice stresses the need for mindfulness and caution. As states begin the process of reopening, the need for social distancing is still critical.

“If we start going back to normal too soon, it’s going to get worse,” he says. “Try to live a normal life. But just because you’re not symptomatic doesn’t mean you can’t transfer it if you’re standing too close to an 85-year-old. If she (were to get sick), what good did we do anyone?”