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Sentara's Nightingale helicopter crew created new safety protocols for COVID-19 patients

The crew was the first in the region to transport COVID-positive patients by air. Social distancing? It's not an option for them.

NORFOLK, Va. — We’re all social distancing to stay safe during the pandemic, but for the flight crew on Sentara’s Nightingale helicopter, staying six feet apart is impossible.

They’ve transported COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic, last March, and in February 2021, they were still doing things a little differently to keep everyone safe.

Denise Baylous, a Nightingale flight nurse and manager, said her crew was the first in the region to transport COVID-19 positive patients by air. 

“Right off the bat, we want to try and stay ahead of everything," Baylous said. “We were requested for a transport for a patient up closer in the Richmond area, nobody could fly them because they were COVID-positive.”  

On a typical flight, there is a pilot, a paramedic, a nurse, and a patient. It's a tight space. 

"There is no social distancing in the aircraft and that’s why we have to be so safe in what we do and all of our PPE," Baylous said.

She said they added to the standard safety gear they used before the pandemic.

“So normally on all patients, we’re going out with gloves, a mask, and eye protection," Baylous explained. "With the COVID patient, we have to take these extra precautions.” 

Those extra precautions include: booties for your feet, a cover for your hair, an N95 mask, and a full bodysuit on top of the normal flight suit and vest. 

“We often help each other suit up,” she said. “The closeness of what we’re transporting, it’s a very, highly contagious disease, so we to make certain we are protected in the closed areas that we are.” 

Baylous said the new safety protocols take time.

“It’s definitely been a struggle. We’ve had to really stop and slow down what we normally do," she said.

But some things hadn’t changed.

“Not our response time to get to the person," she said. "But once we’re there with a COVID positive patient, we want to make certain that we’re safe."

And the work didn’t stop once a patient was transported.  

“Then on top of that it takes us about two to three hours after a COVID transport to wipe everything down, to get everything clean to the level that it would be safe to go on another flight," she said.

The crew was averaging about two flights per day, but they didn't always have daily flights. The most was six calls in a 12-hour shift.