City of Wharton EMS Director John Kowalik told The County Gin with the added protocol and longer wait times for transporting patients, the department has added an additional full-time ambulance into the rotation. 

‘We are very fortunate to have OakBend.’

“Immediately following the July 4th holiday weekend we have witnessed a dramatic increase in call volumes,” Kowalik told The Gin. “The number one issue has been the high volume of people filling up the hospital beds; higher numbers equal longer wait times. Sometimes, I have medics that are out 30 minutes to an hour longer than normal. I had to activate an additional unit, which now makes a total of four active units, to the rotation. They (the medics) are getting hit hard.”

Though Kowalik praises the staff and administration of OakBend Medical Center in Wharton for their work to adapt their services offered surrounding the virus outbreak, he worries the limited medical services in the area could mean a heavier workload for his department. 


“We are very fortunate to have OakBend,” he said. “They are just an ER though. They really do a great job with the trauma-based calls, but there are limitations to the COVID-19 positive patients they can see.”

One factor that Kowalik credits to the heavier transportation calls is the idea that if a presumed COVID patient is transported by ambulance it could influence a lesser wait time at the hospital — a myth that he hopes he and his medics could solve through educating the public.

“With the non-trauma related calls — let’s just say it’s a call specific to a COVID positive patient that needs non-emergency medical attention,” he explained. “We have to educate them on their status and explain that if we take them, it could mean a long wait time in a hospital waiting room. We explain that they do have a choice between us taking them or to call their primary doctor to have a more comfortable wait in the comfort of their home.”


‘This is 100% a tough job to do anyway. You will see and experience people at their worst, most vulnerable times in their life.’

The addition of the fourth unit means more staff on hand to handle the call volume; however, this could also mean a greater risks of fatigue, stress and exposure to the virus as a department. 

“We run a 48/96 shift, which is two-straight days on the clock and four days off,” Kowalik said. “When you have four to eight specific COVID calls in one day during your shift on top of your regular transport and trauma calls, it can get overwhelming. One thing I do admire is our department shifts are basically family groups within our department. They know how to help each other out. Whether its cooking together or just knowing to retire to their rooms for the in-between call time, they have worked together long enough to have their own system, specific to each shift.  

“If you are asking has the pandemic added extra stress, then the answer is most definitely yes. We have been fortunate to not have a positive case within the staff, but it’s a constant worry that we (the department) could contract this virus and take it home to our families, friends or anyone that we’re around. It’s extremely stressful.”

Courtesy photo by John Kowalik. Wharton EMS staff dress in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) suits.

He continued, “This is 100% a tough job to do anyway. You will see and experience people at their worst, most vulnerable times in their life. I mean, we don’t get called out because someone is having a party, you know? So, what we see on a daily basis is hard enough. Adding a pandemic to the mix is just added stress, work and worry.”

Kowalik believes that more testing does mean more positive cases, but the testing and diagnosing of COVID-19 patients aids the community as a whole and serve as a reminder for everyone to do their part to slow the spread.

“More testing does mean more positive case numbers; however, testing could save someone’s life,” he said. “Now, do I believe that all are going to be sick or die? No. I actually think this could be positive for herd immunity given the current age group, but our goal as a community should be to keep the most vulnerable from getting this, so people don’t get critically ill or die.

‘It’s not suppose to hit this close to home. It’s not suppose to take our loved ones, but it can and it does.’

Working within the community he lives in and loves is why Kowalik wishes more members would follow guidelines and recommendations from state, county and city officials in order to keep the community healthy. 

“I say this all the time; The best thing about serving in a small community, is knowing the people that you serve and the worst part is knowing the people that you serve,” he told The Gin. “This virus doesn’t discriminate who it attacks. Wear your masks, stay at home when you can. Don’t go to a pool party and then go visit your elderly family members. I don’t want to see anyone else in my community die from this. They are all friends and family to me. It’s (COVID-19) not suppose to hit this close to home. It’s not suppose to take our loved ones, but it can and it does.”

Kowalik referenced the recent passing of Wharton firefighter Arthur Araguz as one loss that adds to the many emotions his medics experience each day.

“The recent loss of Arthur is heartbreaking,” he said. “I’ve worked with him for close to 25 years.

“I ask for people to do their part and pray for my department and all first responding departments that continue to face extra challenges. Let’s stay at home and follow the guidelines to beat this here in Wharton County.”


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