In the past two weeks, Joe Acker has seen a shift in his field that is unlike anything ever before.
Acker is a paramedic and paramedic practice leader with BC Emergency Health Service. Since Acker and the team with BC EHS first heard about the impact COVID-19 was having on China, they started investigating how to prepare if the virus made it’s way to Canada.
As of Friday, March 20, 348 people are infected with the virus in B.C. and 22 people are in hospital.
“The fear and the global rip that this has is different than anything we’ve ever seen before,” says Acker.
By the end of last week, 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.
“[We want] to make sure we’re giving our paramedics the most up to date information so we’re very coordinated now,” says Acker, although that wasn’t always the case.
“Being completely transparent, we were pretty slow to respond as this really started to hit us significantly in B.C.,” he says. “We were so busy trying to figure things out as a leadership team, we weren’t doing a good job communicating with our staff.”
According to Acker, that has since changed. 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.
“We’ve changed from business as usual to now, almost all of our time is making sure paramedics are safe,” says Acker, adding that the majority of senior paramedic staff’s day is spent ensuring their safety.
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.
“[Last week] we would have 20 to 30 of those calls, that increased yesterday to 400,” says Acker. “Whether that person has fallen and broken their leg, or they’ve been in a car crash … we assume everyone has [coronavirus].”
This has lead 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 — protective glasses, the best quality mask you can get, a full apron or gown, a face shield and of course, gloves— paramedics will assess the situation.
Paramedics might have to change in out of all that gear anywhere from six to ten times a day so as to not contaminate other areas they work in such as the front of the ambulance.
According to Acker, only a few paramedics have had to self isolate due to exposures to the virus but he says all staff members have been assured they will be getting paid even if they can’t work.
“No matter what, our staff are taken care of in terms of financial issues.”
And while Acker, like the rest of us, doesn’t know how long this pandemic will last he says there are enough paramedics to make sure everyone is safe. Some paramedics who recently retired have been asked to come back and work a few shifts to help lessen the burden as BC EHS plans for the next couple of months.
Acker’s final ask — don’t be calling 911 or 811 for every small sign or symptom of the virus. Use the BC Centre for Disease Control’s online self-assessment and follow the steps from there.
“Don’t bother the health professionals unless you absolutely need them because everybody is really busy right now,” he says. “The public shouldn’t panic, they should take care of themselves but when they do need us they can rest assured we’ll be there for them.”