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Penn's student-run Medical Emergency Response Team, commonly known as MERT, at their training on Oct. 24.

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Calls to Penn’s student-run Medical Emergency Response Team are surging back to pre-pandemic levels, with more incidents relating to general medical emergencies than student intoxication this semester in a break from previous years.

MERT — a student-run organization that responds to medical emergencies in the Penn community — is maintaining strict COVID-19 precautions while also expanding their pre-hospital treatment services and outreach to student groups on campus. The organization's campaigns to increase awareness of their operations on campus have led to more non-undergraduates to also take advantage of MERT, Joshua Glick, MERT’s Medical Director and MERT alumnus, said.

“[MERT] is seeing a lot of things that they haven’t seen in prior years — diabetic emergencies, seizures, older people with chest pain,” Glick said. “[MERT’s] call volume is not the old school, majority intoxicated students. Intoxicated patients are down, alternative medical and trauma calls are up.” 

In response to this trend, Glick said MERT widened the scope of their on-campus services during the pandemic, including recently adding glucometers for diabetic emergencies and training its members to utilize albuterol, a device used to help with asthma and other severe respiratory issues. MERT also held in-person training for its team members this semester, including their first in-person Mass Casualty Incident drill since fall 2019. 

In light of the pandemic, Glick said student officers continue to ask patients COVID-19 screening questions from a distance before acting. If a patient responds ‘yes’ to any of these questions, Glick said a team member can choose to engage, but only after donning full personal protective equipment. These protocols will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future, he believes. 

While MERT does not release their exact call volume numbers, Chief of MERT and College senior Emily Kopp, who has been part of the organization for all four years of her undergraduate career at Penn, said the team’s activity this semester has risen to a level similar to that of her first and second year. 

In addition to their regular shifts throughout the week, Kopp said that MERT operations have expanded this semester to include being on standby during athletic events and other large gatherings such as Hey Day. 

Kopp said that MERT responds to all kinds of medical emergencies — not just calls for alcohol intoxication-related incidents. Their average response times for emergencies is five minutes, according to MERT's website.

“If you broke your ankle, or you fell off your skateboard, or your chest is hurting, calling MERT is the fastest way to get medical care around here,” she said.

Kopp also encouraged students to access MERT's free services without fearing any extra payments, saying many community members are reluctant to call for MERT because they believe it will lead to extra costs.

“MERT is free, period. Anything provided by MERT is free. The [Penn Alternative Response Unit] unit is also completely free in transport, and ambulances from the fire department are free during certain hours," Kopp said. AR-1, a unit of the Philadelphia Fire Department, addresses low-acuity medical incidents across Penn's campus.

Vice President for Public Safety and Superintendent of the Penn Police Department Maureen Rush emphasized MERT’s importance as an additional layer of protection to campus alongside Penn Police and the University's Alternative Response Unit. 

Rush added that MERT's student-run operations make it an asset to campus security, because an undergraduate patient might feel more comfortable receiving advice from a fellow student than from AR-1 or Penn Police. 

MERT works closely with College Houses and Academic Services to maintain the security of on-campus student residents. CHAS uses MERT as a University resource to respond to students' medical needs, whether those needs come on the weekend or after hours, Executive Director of CHAS Hikaru Kozuma wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian.

Residential advisors and graduate resident advisors often rely on MERT’s services to respond to student emergencies. Over Labor Day weekend alone, RAGRAs in the Quad, which is home to many first years on campus, made over a dozen calls to MERT for student intoxication and other incidents, according to one anonymous GRA, who requested anonymity in fear of retaliation from CHAS.

“MERT is a really important resource for us. When we do have residents that need medical attention, MERT is the first thing we reach out to,” another GRA, who also requested anonymity. said. “They have been nothing but seamless, fast, well trained, [and] responsible.”

Kopp said students should never hesitate to call MERT's emergency services number at (215) 573-3333.

“We always encourage people to make healthy choices. We just want everyone to be safe on campus, so we're glad every time someone calls. Whenever you’re in doubt, you call.”