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Code Red: County paramedics feeling pandemic burnout

Absenteeism ‘certainly more pronounced right now,’ says Simcoe County's chief paramedic
2018-11-30 Paramedics JO-005
County of Simcoe Paramedic Services. Jessica Owen/BarrieToday

While Peel and Durham regions are reporting paramedic shortages in the wake of a major uptick in COVID-19 cases, in Simcoe County, the situation hasn’t hit a fever pitch yet – but it could soon.

Cory Schepers, president of OPSEU Local 303, representing Simcoe County Paramedics, said local emergency responders are exhausted.

“I hate using the word ‘burnt out,' but in reality we do have quite a number of them who are burnt out or seem to be well on their way,” he said.

Durham Paramedics caused a stir on social media this week when their union reported on Twitter that they had zero ambulances available at one point due to staff shortages.

Schepers says he is not aware of any instances so far in Simcoe County of this occurring, however he said there are regular instances of ‘Code Red,’ which refers to when specific areas are down to two available units, or there are six units total available across the entire county.

“It’s a daily occurrence. Multiple times a day,” he said. “It would be rare for me to do a shift without a Code Red at some point.”

Schepers says the pandemic situation is definitely impacting paramedics locally.

“Not to the level of Peel or Durham yet, but we already generally don’t have our full complement of staff on,” he said. “Management is doing everything they can to fill these... but there are fewer ambulances on the road. I only see this getting worse in our area as our omicron numbers increase.”

Chief Andrew Robert says Simcoe County Paramedic Services is still able to maintain adequate coverage, despite absenteeism being slightly up.

As of Jan. 6, Robert says the service has been able to maintain 90 per cent of their plan. On Jan. 6, 41 out of 42 ambulances were staffed and ready. He said between 17 and 19 paramedics were absent, out of their total complement of 370.

“Right now, things are relatively stable. We know there could be a tidal wave coming at us. We’ve had some days that have been more challenging than others,” he said.

Robert says there are a variety of reasons staff are taking absences, which can include maternity or paternity leaves, as well as existing mental health leaves and regular sickness or injuries not related to COVID-19.

However, he notes there has been a rise in COVID-19-related absences, either due to actual cases, having to take a leave while an employee waits on test results, paramedics who are parents who are unable to make child care arrangements or mental health leaves due to the strain of COVID-19.

“It’s a little more enhanced at present. That’s been climbing for the past couple of years,” said Robert. “It’s certainly more pronounced right now.”

As a result of the reduced staffing along with the increases in the numbers of patients transported to the hospital and longer in-hospital offload times, overall emergency response times to the community have increased slightly.

The County of Simcoe, which oversees paramedic services, noted increased overtime shifts and is assessing the need to redeploy staff from other departments to administrative or logistical roles should staffing levels reach a level of urgency in the coming weeks.

“It’s hard to predict. We’re watching what’s going on and we’re seeing a lot of challenges. I would hate to sit back and feel too comfortable because today, we’re doing OK. We’re certainly going to plan for the worst,” said Robert.

And while the effect on paramedics may not be immediately apparent, it could become moreso as the pandemic rages on.

“Yes, it’s tough on people. We’ve had a lot of people who work overtime, but sometimes they just can’t. We do have people on leaves for mental health. That’s not new, and it’s not pandemic-specific,” said Robert. “I suspect there are probably more lately than there have been historically.”

“They’re working extremely hard. There is a toll it’s taking,” he said.