Coronavirus: Honouring the paramedics on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic

The theme for this year’s Paramedic Services Week is ‘Pandemic: Paramedics on the Front Line,’ and there’s no doubt paramedics are playing a critical role on the front lines of public health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Toronto Paramedic Services (TPS) is the largest such municipal service in Canada.

“We do over 800 calls a day, so our paramedic services staff really work hard and in today’s changing environment, it’s a real challenge,” explained TPS chief and general manager Gord McEachen.

“The commitment our staff provide every day, coming to work in these uncertain times, it’s a real honour to work with them and recognize them in these difficult days.”

READ MORE: Paramedic Services Week highlights changes for front-line workers amid coronavirus pandemic

These are certainly unique times for everyone, including — and perhaps especially — paramedics.

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“We’re certainly doing more COVID patients, a lot of intubated patients, a lot of persons under investigation,” said Jeff Engel, a 34-year veteran of TPS.

Engel spent the last 22 years as a critical care paramedic.

His ambulance functions like a “mobile ICU,” he explained.

“We carry infectious patients all the time but this one is different, the intensity is there,” he said.

Engel’s partner Claude Muir has also spent 22 years as a critical care paramedic.

4:11 Paramedic Services Week

Paramedic Services Week

“The patients that we encounter with COVID are extremely sick,” explained Muir. “They can’t oxygenate properly so we have to actually have to transport them face-down.

“And that’s particualry challenging.”

The critical care team often transports coronavirus-positive patients from one hospital to another in order to help manage patient load.

“It’s devastating. It’s not just the patients, it’s their families as well, so because of COVID the hospitals have locked down so they don’t allow visitors,” said Muir. “Typically, family will be at the hospital.”

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The team lived and worked through the SARS pandemic of 2002-03, but this, they say, is nothing like that. With SARS patients, they acknowledged, the diagnosis was made and the patients were symptomatic.

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1:53 Frontenac Paramedics talk about changes to their work in a pandemic

Frontenac Paramedics talk about changes to their work in a pandemic

There is still a lot of mystery with COVID-19, they said, and the symptoms are evolving.

“Now we’re dealing with GI, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, pink eye,” said Engel.

The way paramedics approach patients has also changed due to the coronavirus.

Lindsay Piper, a primary care paramedic of 40 years, told Global News that to ensure her own safety, there are extra steps she now has to take before she can care for her patient.

“It’s harder in terms of just being hyper vigilant on every call, we have something else to think about in terms of what questions to ask and infection control, wearing our PPE and the gowns,” she said, which will become challenging she pointed out in the summer months.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Paramedics, respiratory therapist, public health nurses to receive pandemic pay increase

Those precautions begin with the initial 9-1-1 call.

Courtney Poirier is one of 125 emergency medical dispatchers at TPS.

When she answers a call to 9-1-1, Poirier is now asking more screening questions than ever before, including, “have you travelled in the last 21 days? Has the patient been in contact with anyone probable or possible for COVID-19?”

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Poirier also urges patients and their families to not approach the paramedics until they have had time to screen for symptoms and put on their personal protective equipment.

While paramedics are often an early point of contact for the public, it is a team of professionals that is responsible for getting them to the front line.

Mario de Rosa, an automotive technicial, plays a critical role — ensuring the safety of the TPS ambulance fleet.

READ MORE: An in-depth look at how Toronto’s paramedics work to save victims of gun violence, trauma

“We want to make sure that we do a fantastic job that they’re going out safe, because we know that they’re going out there to save lives,” he said.

When the call is complete, people like Travis Lyons in equipment services and logistics, meanwhile, are responsible for cleaning the trucks, which is critical during a pandemic.

“We wipe the whole ambulance from top to bottom, in all the little shelving, take out all that stock, disinfect the whole entire vehicle,” he explained.

READ MORE: Frontline nurses find ways to deal with stress of COVID-19, grief of losing patients

In a statement issued this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the more than 40,000 paramedics and communications officers who “stand ready to help Canadians in need. Day in and day out, they answer our calls for help and put themselves in harm’s way to save lives.”

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Trudeau specifically referred to the work of Canada’s paramedics during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Throughout this pandemic, paramedics have shown up for Canadians, and they have shown us the very best of courage, compassion, and dedication. And we’re determined to be there for them, too,” Trudeau said.

“We will continue to do everything we can to support them during this difficult time. Because it’s by being there for one another that we’ll get through this crisis.”

Carley Mason, a primary care paramedic of six years, told Global News her role has shifted slightly over the last two months and she is finding herself now advocating even more for her patients and stepping in for family members who cannot be present.

“I think that knowing that we are taking a sick loved one of their own, that they can’t come with us because of the strict zero visitor policy, we need to be able to apply that same kind of care ,that same kind of compassion that they would receive,” she said.

READ MORE: Toronto nurses open up about struggles, challenges amid pandemic

With warmer weather upon us, Mason also has a warning for the public who may want to spend more time outdoors.

“We can’t be going into the parks and not maintaining physical distancing, we can’t not wear a mask just because you find that it’s uncomfortable,” she said.

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“We’re all struggling. It has been weeks. It’s a lockdown, it’s no fun, but if we all band together and do as we’re asked by public health, then we’ll be able to get through this a lot faster.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.