MILWAUKEE (WKOW) -- When Rev. Marcus Allen knew it was no longer safe to hold in-person services at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Madison, he called his mother, who lives in Milwaukee. Allen said he was especially concerned since he describes his mom as a 'couponer.'
"She stays in stores a lot so I started telling her 'hey, be mindful of this,'" Allen said. "The week when the NBA shut down (March 11,) I started telling her to be mindful of it."
On March 31, Allen said his mother, Gloria Allen, went to the doctor's office with a cough and fever. Allen said she was initially diagnosed with bronchitis but, over the next 10 days, her symptoms kept getting worse.
"My mom was having extreme shortness of breath," Allen said. "She was unable to breathe. She even said she thought she was gonna die alone at the house."
On the evening of April 9, Allen said Gloria's fiancé wanted to take her to the hospital. Allen said he suggested they call 911 for an ambulance, which they did.
When the Milwaukee Fire Department medics arrived, Allen said they evaluated Gloria's possible COVID-19 symptoms and advised her against transportation to the hospital.
"We didn't do the right thing. We erred in what we did that day," said Milwaukee Fire Department Assistant Chief Aaron Lipski.
Lipski confirmed sending a letter to Allen obtained by 27 News. The letter states the MFD crew "was in error" when it advised Gloria Allen against going to the hospital.
Rev. Allen said he called his mom's primary care doctor the next day and they arranged for her to visit the hospital and get a COVID-19 test. It came back positive and she spent the next four days on oxygen.
Lipski said the department has specialized COVID-19 response crews who have the authority to advise patients when transportation may not be in their best interests. Lipski said the new policy exists to avoid overcrowding hospitals and to limit exposure to the virus for people who may be ill but aren't displaying COVID-19 symptoms.
"Very specific units that are separate from the rest of our normal operations base have that additional training and that additional authority," Lipski said. "(Those crews) would communicate with the people and do that assessment and, finding that there was not another major underlying condition or emergency situation requiring transport, talk with them about the potential for them to remain at home instead of going to an emergency room."
In Gloria Allen's case, the responding medics were not part of the COVID-19 response unit. Lipski said the incident led to a department-wide directive clarifying that regular medic crews "defer to normal EMS operations."
"We've taken immediate and decisive steps to ensure this does not happen to anybody else," Lipski said.
After spending four days in the hospital, on oxygen, Rev. Allen said his mother is back home recovering. Allen said doctors told him that had Gloria's breathing not improved, she would have needed a ventilator.
"Thanks be to God, she is recovering," Allen said.
Acknowledging the disparities
Rev. Allen said he was especially troubled by the medics' response given that African-Americans account for 74 of Milwaukee County's 138 reported COVID-19 deaths. That's 54% of the county's deaths for a demographic that accounts for 27% of the county's population.
"I'm not trying to make it a race thing but I'm just wondering what would've happened if this was in (Milwaukee suburbs) Brown Deer, Brookfield, or Wauwatosa?" Allen said.
Lipski was adamant that racial or socioeconomic status have no bearing on how medics handle calls. Lipski said his department is aware of Milwaukee's status as one of the country's most segregated major cities. He said that has led to firefighters and medics being especially sensitive to any perceptions of bias.
"Our firefighters will crawl into burning buildings to try to rescue people they've never met before -- of all makes and models," Lipski said. "The fire service is unique in that it is about the humanity of the mission."
Rev. Allen said after filing his initial complaint, he was impressed with Lipski's immediate follow-up.
"He was very responsive," Allen said. "He called me every day until they gave me the report."