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Expert Issues Brief COVID-19

Use of Emergency Medical Services for Respiratory Distress Among Latino Adults During the Early COVID-19 Pandemic

This faculty-expert brief examines the use of respiratory distress-related emergency medical service (EMS) calls among different racial and ethnic populations and identifies the need for better language and cultural literacy among service providers to adequately serve Latino patients.




Emergency Medical Services (EMS) are an essential component of the U.S. health care system and a vital sector in COVID-19 response efforts.  In this faculty brief, the authors summarize the findings in their recent study which examined differences in respiratory distress-related emergency medical service (EMS) calls among adults aged 50 and older from different racial and ethnic populations.

The study found that Latinos increased their use of EMS services due to respiratory distress relative to other groups, and particularly relative to non-Latino whites, between the first half of 2019 and the first half of 2020. While a year before the pandemic, the odds of calling EMS services for respiratory distress for white adults aged 50 and older were 28 percent higher than the odds for Latinos, during the early pandemic months, the odds for whites of calling EMS services due to respiratory distress were 10 percent lower than Latinos.

The reversal in the use of respiratory-related EMS services between whites and Latinos may be indicative of the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 among Latino adults but has deeper implications for the EMS system and for Latinos who need better emergency medical services. Our findings and past research show that the EMS system in California needs to adapt to the disproportionate negative health effects experienced by Latinos.

Policy Recommendations:

1. Diversify the EMS workforce to better reflect communities served.

2. Expand the existing pool of Spanish-speaking and linguistically-capable emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics.

3. Enforce continuing education requirements in geriatrics and gerontology.

4. Prioritize the centralization of an EMS database in California.

5. Build trust in the community.