TORONTO — An 83-year-old woman falls out of bed and 911 is called. Jason Fraser, a Peterborough, Ont. paramedic for 17 years, and his partner respond to the routine call. But these days, no call is truly routine; every call can instill fear.
“Is today going to be the day that I become infected with COVID-19?” Jason, a married father with triplets, asks.
He and his partner do not take any chances. Every time, they put on their personal protective gear and don N95 masks.
“Most people are coming in screened COVID-positive. We need gloves, masks, N95 every single call. That is the only way we are going to protect people,” he said.
In their latest call to aid the elderly woman who had fallen, a temperature check in the enclosed space of the ambulance revealed the patient had a fever, but didn’t know. It is exactly the kind of situation that makes paramedics like Fraser grateful they are wearing PPE. But current provincial directives, issued last month, do not go far enough on the issue, according to Fraser.
The latest directive says contact and droplet precautions must be used for all suspected, presumed, or confirmed COVID-19 patients — these include gloves, face shields or goggles, gowns, and surgical/procedure masks. Paramedics should, “based on a point of care risk assessment and clinical and professional judgement,” change to N95 respirators or equivalent for aerosol generating medical procedures such as intubation.
“During the SARS crisis, we wore N95 masks on every call. That was the standard. Fast forward 17 years to COVID-19. And now we’re being told by the government that a surgical mask is OK to use. And I’d say a surgical mask is not OK in our field,” said Fraser, who believes that a supply shortage of the higher-grade masks is behind the guidelines.
Paramedics across the province are already frustrated at being left out of the Ontario government’s list of front line workers who qualify for a temporary $4 per hour pay premium that was announced over the weekend.
“It isn’t the 4 bucks…We would appreciate if you occasionally remembered paramedics who spend their days in LTC homes, hospitals and shelters helping patients,” the Peel Paramedic Union wrote in a tweet directed at Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
Meanwhile, at one warehouse that supplies medical equipment to ambulance services in Ontario, the shelves are alarmingly empty.
“I can’t give them any masks, I can’t get them hardly any gloves. And I can’t get them any sanitizer. I can’t give them any shields and I can’t give them any gowns,” said Sheldon Sturrock of Toronto-based Allied Medical.
As supplies dwindle — the Peterborough unit estimates they currently have about a week’s supply of N95s — paramedics worry what will happen if they run out.
A least eight paramedics across the province have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
“We don’t know what this is going to bring. And, you know, I don’t want to take it home to my family. I don’t want to pass on to my partner or my colleagues,” said Fraser.