The union representing Toronto’s paramedic services sent an alarming tweet Saturday: “#CodeRed No units available in the city at 18:38 hours tonight.”
The tweet stoked fears the health-care system was once again feeling the strain of COVID-19, fuelled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant.
And, while a union representative told the Star the staffing issues are nothing new, resources are stretched thin by the pandemic and an ongoing opioid overdose crisis.
“It’s distressing, but it’s certainly something we’ve been bringing up to management for years now,” said Peter Shirer, vice-chair of the Toronto Paramedic Services unit for TCEU Local 416.
“It’s certainly exacerbated at times of high call numbers.”
COVID-19 infecting paramedics plus staffing pressures at hospitals puts more strain on the system, Shirer said.
There are also non-emergency calls from patients worried their symptoms are COVID-19, he said.
“People are not sure what to do,” Shirer said. Paramedic teams have to treat calls like they are an emergency, he added.
Shirer said staff are also contracting the virus or isolating because they are suspected positive cases. He also said terminations due to a city vaccination policy are having a very small impact. The union is currently grieving that policy, he said.
And with hospital staff shortages, paramedics are experiencing delays at emergency rooms when transferring patients, he said.
Overall, Shirer said the city and the province — which split funding of paramedic services 50/50 — need to step in.
“You need to build into any staffing model surge capacity that allows for these sorts of things,” he said. “It really is a systemic thing.”
Scarborough emergency room doctor Lisa Salamon said the backlog at her hospital is overwhelming.
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“To me, there are days where the length that they’re in the stretchers, I’ve never seen that before,” she said.
As for ambulatory services reporting zero units: “That’s really, really scary.”
She said officials were warned what an ongoing pandemic on top of regular emergencies like heart attacks and strokes would mean for system capacity, saying on top of their normal hours health care workers are going to extraordinary lengths behind-the-scenes to keep things operating.
Salamon explained that when an ambulance arrives at the hospital, a triage nurse is the first point of contact. A doctor can see a patient on the stretcher if they’re available, but if that person needs an IV or imaging or another form of care that isn’t immediately available, they have to wait with paramedics who can continue caring for them.
And “like everybody else, health care workers are getting COVID,” she said, speaking to shortages at the hospital.
Meanwhile, people have been given a “false sense of security” about the severity of being infected with the Omicron variant, but for the unvaccinated, symptoms are probably more severe than the original variant, Salamon said.
Shirer said the paramedic service aims to have 120 staffed ambulances between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. That drops to 50 or 60 vehicles overnight.
In an email, city spokesperson Brad Ross said “at any given moment in time in a 24-hour period, all ambulances may be either on a call or in a hospital, but then immediately freed up the next moment to respond to a call.”
“This is not an uncommon occurrence,” the statement said. “During busier periods, there will be delays in responding to low priority calls while paramedics respond to higher priority calls due to absences related to COVID-19.”
Ross said Toronto Fire Services is pitching in by responding to low priority calls, calling paramedics as needed.
The statement acknowledged off-loading issues at hospitals due to COVID-19 absences and noted ambulances from other GTA regions can respond to Toronto calls and vice versa as needed.
The CBC reported that paramedics from Gananoque, Ont. responded to a call two hours away in downtown Ottawa because local paramedics were not available.
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags
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