Five years ago, most of the calls coming into Clayton County’s 911 center were non-emergencies that often led to an unnecessary trip to the local emergency room.
Hoping to cut down on the number of non-emergency trips to the hospital, the county created an innovative first-responder program reminiscent of the days when doctors made house calls.
The nationally-recognized Community Treatment Unit – part of Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services – is a roving, round-the-clock county service that enables residents with chronic or acute health issues to get medical care often without leaving home.
First Responders Conduct COVID Testing in Clayton
These days, however, the Community Treatment Unit’s nine nurse practitioners and a full-time doctor have had to turn their attention away from dealing with Clayton’s non-life-threatening medical needs to the more urgent needs of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
True to its first responder roots, the unit is staffing a COVID testing site at the Riverdale Town Center.
“All my nurses and the on-staff doctor have been tied up doing COVID testing,” Clayton Fire Chief Landry Merkison said. “We’ve had to shift all of our operations managing our pandemic response for the county.”
The Community Treatment Unit was initially set up to handle a plethora of medical needs throughout the county. That broad range of services enabled the unit to quickly pivot and adapt to the county’s growing need for COVID testing.
“Everything we started four and half years ago had led us to where we are today,” Merkison added. “Having a full-time physician has allowed us to have access to testing. The county wouldn’t be getting as many of its residents tested as it is now.”
Medical Services Designed to Improve Quality of Life for Residents
The Community Treatment Unit started with ambulance-style vehicles outfitted with equipment that allows paramedics and nurses to treat patients in the field. The vehicles carry emergency life support equipment as well as equipment for screening and treatment of an assortment of medical conditions. The CTU teams then go out into the community to identify and address non-emergency calls that come through the county’s 911 system.
“It’s an enhanced service provided by the county commissioners to Clayton’s residents to enhance their quality of life and access to health care,” Merkison said. “It helps reduce the overall burden on the hospital by reducing the influx of non-emergency cases to the ER. We’ve gone from doing just fire only to emergency medical and now we’re an all-hazard agency. We respond to everything that doesn’t involve crime or the police.”
Clayton’s Community Treatment Unit is “the only program of this type in Georgia that the Department of Public Health is aware of,” said Nancy Nydam, a DPH spokesperson.
In addition to addressing the county’s medical needs innovatively, the program has gained a national reputation. In 2017, the program was among 100 semifinalists for the Innovations in American Government Awards, a national honor for public agencies with unique approaches to community problems.
Last year, state lawmakers wrote an exception into the law that cleared the way for the program’s nurses to work for a doctor and be able to prescribe medicine, Merkison said.
For now, the Community Treatment Unit’s original mission has taken a backseat as Clayton deals with the global pandemic.
“Once we get on the backside of this pandemic, we’ll get back on the streets.”
TIMELINE OF EMERGENCY MEDICAL SERVICES IN CLAYTON COUNTY
October 1966: Special election on establishing fire protection district in Clayton County
March 1, 1967: A Fire Department is created in Clayton County with the appointment of William J. Guice as fire chief. The same day, four fire trucks are ordered.
1970: The fire department consists of five fire stations, 61 firefighters, and 14 apparatus. The department added an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) pilot program. Clayton personnel became some of the first emergency medical technicians and advanced emergency medical technicians certified in Georgia.
December 1974: The Emergency Medical Service Division of the Clayton County Fire Department is established with three EMS vehicles and one reserve vehicle.
1977: EMS is expanded to include transporting injured to the hospital. A station wagon from the Civil Defense served as the county’s first ambulance.
Nov. 5, 2013: Landry Merkison is appointed the sixth fire chief of Clayton County.
2015: The Clayton County Board of Commissioners approved a plan for a $1.9 million program called Community Treatment Unit. The Unit calls for specially-built mobile units to serve county residents with chronic or acute medical needs.
January 2016: Nine employees are hired, trained and outfitted for the Community Treatment Unit.
2019: Georgia lawmakers wrote an exception to state law allowing nurses in the Clayton Community Treatment Unit to work with a doctor and prescribe medication.
Source: Fire Chief Landry Merkison and Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services website