Ambulance Paramedic of BC member Sarah Bender responds to a call. (Joshua Berson photo)

BC paramedics stepping up in COVID-19 battle

Daily stresses continue to grow, but paramedics say training and experience will help them overcome

The Abbotsford News published a special tribute to first responders in its Thursday, April 9th edition, with a focus on police, paramedics, firefighters, and doctors and nurses. This story focuses on BC Ambulance paramedics. Click here to see the whole section.

Ambulance paramedics and emergency dispatchers are often the first step in the arduous journey for anyone battling coronavirus.

They are that first calming voice, the careful touch or helpful advice that a person struggling with the disease encounters.

But, despite their bravery and commitment to the job, ultimately they are human just like all of us and face the same doubts and concerns that we all do in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Troy Clifford, the provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of BC, said he’s proud of the way he and his co-workers have faced the many new challenges.

“Our biggest thing right now is just trying to manage all the fears and stresses not just from ourselves but also those of the general public,” he said. “Our own concerns and fears are being put secondary to our responsibilities to the public. Unless paramedics are safe to look after patients, we can’t do our jobs effectively. And that’s what I’m most proud of – how our paramedics are responding and just their resilience.”

Clifford said every call could potentially be exposing members to the coronavirus, but protocol put in place over the years and some newer advice has calmed many of the nerves of workers.

“Every call could be COVID-19 suspicious- or infectious-disease-related so that adds to the pressure of being prepared and using risk assessments at all times,” he said. “A lot of that goes back to our training. We’ve always had rigid protocols in place during training and that had really enhanced why we’re seeing how we’re able to respond in such an efficient manner to this. We deal with crises all the time and those experiences have prepared us.”

One of the big adjustments that the BC Emergency Health Service made early on was to organize and focus paramedics all across the province to best equip them as they fight on the front lines of the pandemic.

In mid-March, an emergency coordination centre was set up for paramedics across the province, which was located in Victoria but has since been moved to Vancouver. At the centre, meetings are held every day of the week focusing on the strategic details of BC EHS’s plan to combat the virus, along with the operations of paramedics across the province and logistics in dealing with supplies and personal protective equipment, and the most important meeting – communication.

BC EHS has now implemented daily practice updates in video format that get sent out to all paramedics in a Facebook group. Of the 4,100 paramedics in B.C., at least 3,300 of them are on social media and receive updates that way.

Leading up to the declaration of the pandemic, 911 call takers would ask a series of questions to determine the likelihood of the patient having COVID-19. Now, everyone is treated as if they have the virus.

This has led to a change in procedure for paramedics making house calls. Normally, a paramedic would walk right in, sit down next to you and start treating your illness; now, paramedics call the patient to the door. Making sure to stand three metres away, and dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE) – protective glasses, the best quality mask, a full apron or gown, a face shield and, of course, gloves – paramedics will assess the situation.

Paramedics might have to change in and out of all that gear anywhere from six to 10 times a day so as to not contaminate other areas they work in, such as the front of the ambulance.

Clifford praised the work of both the federal and provincial governments for making so much PPE available and also making sure it ends up in the hands of those who really need it.

He also acknowledged that regular calls overall are down, with many people seeking self care for minor issues and the prevailing fear that going to the hospital may put them at risk to COVID-19. But he noted that the current climate shouldn’t discourage people with serious issues from calling 911.

“We do really want to make sure that people who may have medical emergencies unrelated to coronavirus are not holding back because of fear of exposure or that they may be a burden on the health system. Those are not reasons not to call 911 if you are hurt or very sick,” Clifford said.

He also specifically praised the work of Fraser Health paramedics, noting that the large region can make it challenging to serve, but that they have been more than up to the task in the COVID-19 battle. He added that the positivity from the public is extremely encouraging and urged locals to continue showing support.

“People have been dropping stuff off at our stations, writing nice messages in chalk on the sidewalk and also the 7 p.m. salute has all been so overwhelming for all of us,” he said.

“The public acknowledging the role we do and the sacrifices we make is just so encouraging for everyone. It’s really rewarding to see that so many people care when we’re all under so much stress.”

– With files from Kendra Crighton/Black Press

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