Paramedics reflect on response
Daily battle against COVID described as an emotionally draining learning curve
Calgary paramedics prepared for the worst as novel coronavirus cases developed in the city.
They feared hospital and ambulance services would be overrun, as they have been in Italy and parts of the United States, where COVID-19 has claimed the lives of thousands. The worst has yet to come — and hopefully never does for Alberta’s largest city.
“The work that we’ve done in the province to actually self-distance, isolate and quarantine is obviously starting to pay off now,” said Shane Paton, acting public education officer for Calgary EMS. “We all still need to be safe, and prevent that from happening down the road, but it is certainly a big relief.”
Under a “probable” scenario, Alberta was originally projected to peak in mid-may with 800,000 total infections and between 400 and 1,300 total deaths. In an “elevated scenario” the peak would hit in early May with over one million infections and between 500 and 6,600 deaths.
The province came close to neither.
As of Saturday, COVID -19 cases totalled 6,992 with 143 deaths. The Calgary zone makes up the majority of cases and deaths at 4,860 and 104, respectively.
Local paramedics played a crucial role, like all front-line workers, in helping to control the spread of the deadly virus by adapting their response significantly to protect themselves and patients.
Enhanced use of personal protective equipment (PPE), robust sanitization and cleaning of emergency vehicles, and calculated actions to prevent possible spread to loved ones, were all undertaken.
“It’s definitely been a learning curve for all of us and definitely affects us emotionally. You come to work and you care for people as best you can but you know there’s going to be instances where you could potentially be exposed to COVID-19,” Paton said.
“I would say my biggest challenge is just adapting to this new mind state. When you’re dealing with a virus that’s invisible, and you can carry for a few days prior to having symptoms, you always need to be on the outlook.”
On the job, paramedics practise physical distancing when possible and wear procedural masks in the company of their peers.
Off the clock, some have taken up residence away from their families to protect them from potential exposure. Others are diligent in showering and bagging their uniforms before returning home.
“The biggest thing that has changed for me is just awareness of everything around me and checking in on my partner to make sure they’re safe as well,” Paton said. “And they’ll do the same for me.”
He said paramedics check on their PPE supplies at the start of every shift. Before a new team arrives, ambulances are disinfected and continue to be cleaned after each call.
Paramedics are alerted, in advance of arriving at a home, whether a patient has recently travelled, is experiencing an influenza-like illness or has been around a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case.
These new dispatch protocols help identify what PPE to wear and whether to notify a hospital of a potentially positive incoming case.
When COVID-19 is suspected or confirmed, paramedics wear a gown, gloves, a protective face shield and/or safety glasses, and an N-95 respirator before entering a home.
“There may be a few-minute delay when we get to the call to make sure we have our gown on and our N-95 mask is secured properly,” said Paton, adding that response times are only marginally affected.
On scene, they consult with physicians to determine whether a patient should be seen in a hospital that day or can stay home. Serious cases, in which someone has difficulty breathing, for example, will be transferred immediately.
No family members are allowed to accompany them.
EMS spokesperson Stuart Brideaux said despite Calgary’s optimistic numbers, it’s important people continue to practise caution as the province moves forward with its relaunch strategy.
“Take all of the precautions that are being advised to us,” he said.
“There’s common sense but there’s also the practice of handwashing, physical distancing, staying at home if it’s not necessary (to go out) … all of those things need to stay in place even as there is some return to normalcy.”
Brideaux declined to comment on whether any paramedics have fallen ill with COVID-19.
EMS paramedic Shane Paton, at right with colleague Stuart Brideaux, says the work done in the province is “obviously starting to pay off.”