Ambulance paramedics are warning the public of a “triple threat” during the Christmas holiday seasons as COVID-19 protocols are expected to compound mental health and addiction emergencies during a time of year that can be especially lonely for some.
These two health crises, coupled with “critically low” low paramedic and dispatcher staffing levels – when 75 per cent of the province does not have full-time ambulance service – will put B.C. to the test this year, according to an Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. press release issued Monday.
“Shift vacancy is the highest it has ever been,” says Surrey paramedic Shane Sander, a union spokesman. “When we come to work, the first question we ask one another is: ‘How many ambulances will stay parked today due to staffing shortages?’ The holidays will certainly test ambulance resources and resilience.”
But Shannon Miller, spokeswoman for BC Emergency Health Services, says it’s “incorrect” to suggest that 75 per cent of the province is without full-time coverage. “Paramedics and our 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week dispatch/call centres cover the entire province, 100-per-cent of the time. We are a provincial service with paramedics responding and treating patients wherever they are located,” she told the Now-Leader.
Miller also said Surrey “recently increased ambulance and paramedic resources, including 10 more ambulances operating out of the former Treo site.”
Troy Clifford, president of Ambulance Paramedics of BC, says physical, emotional and psychological exhaustion “have set in” among ambulance paramedics and dispatchers.
“We are coming onto one year of responding to the global pandemic and almost five years since the province declared an overdose emergency,” Clifford said. “These double health crises are already threatening our frontline emergency medical services, and the triple threat is that our profession is experiencing recruitment issues and an increase in stress leave, which has created a critical shortage of staff. We are worried about members of the public feeling greater isolation over the holidays or using drugs alone and not having access to immediate medical care and transport to hospital.”
Five people per day – 162 all told – died of overdoses in October, the BC Coroners Service revealed last week.
Meantime, Clifford said in Monday’s press release that ambulance crew burnout, retention and recruitment are at a “breaking point.
“What British Columbians may not know is that 75 per cent of the province relies on an on-call service model, meaning there’s no full-time ambulance service. This model makes retention and recruitment of paramedics a challenge because they don’t get meaningful compensation – only $2 per hour during an on-call shift with the hourly wage increasing only if they tend to an emergency or transfer a patient between health facilities.”
According to the press release, in October and November some communities had more than 50 vacant paramedic shifts, resulting in no immediate ambulance response on some days.
Paramedic Kristi Schmitz, who works in Haida Gwaii, said she was on shift every day from September 3 to October 16 to make sure her community had coverage. “This is not sustainable.”