Background: The purpose of this work was to describe the experiences of EMS personnel in responding to drug overdose-related calls and the impact the pandemic has had to help better inform current response and treatment efforts.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 99 EMS personnel across 18 areas throughout the United States that were designated as Early Warning Network sentinel sites by the National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded National Drug Early Warning System. Participants were asked about topics including the potential burdens from the pandemic and the opioid crisis. We coded the interview responses and identified themes through qualitative analysis. Multiple cycles of descriptive coding, recoding, subcoding, pattern-coding, and thematic coding of responses were conducted.

Results: Responses were categorized into the following themes: 1) being over-worked from increased call volume; 2) increased risk for personal harm when responding to patients; 3) compassion fatigue due to long hours and repeat calls for the same people; 4) conflicting perceptions of the utility of naloxone; 5) the need for better treatment options to respond to opioid crisis on top of COVID-19.

Conclusions: The burden of the substance use disorder (SUD) crisis on EMS personnel has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. These reports from EMS personnel throughout the US can help inform policy and procedures to better protect the mental health of EMS personnel and to ensure better care for patients with SUD. These experiences and recommendations may be of use for other countries as substance use and COVID-19 are global health issues.