Kyle Johansen, operations superintendent for Peel Regional Paramedic Services

"The trade-off of people not going to the ER when they should is that they’re waiting too long, and we’re seeing them much sicker"

The coronavirus doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s an added pressure on our system, but all the things that were occurring before – injuries, illnesses, the more traumatic things you see on TV like shootings and fires –  they still happen. It’s business as usual, plus coronavirus. 

In December and January, we were aware of these illnesses coming out of China and then out of Italy in February, but things started to really change around March 1, prior to the province imposing the social restrictions. 

I’m a frontline paramedic supervisor. It’s similar to a police sergeant or fire captain. I oversee around 15 crews, but if we ever need extra hands, then I self-dispatch. At our shift briefings, I update the crews on new health and safety precautions. There are a lot of new processes we have to follow when we’re transferring patients to hospitals. 

Unfortunately, we now can’t bring any family members in the ambulance with us unless it’s the direct guardian of a minor or the partner of a pregnant woman in labour. Going through a medical emergency is scary enough, and then imagine having to do it on your own? We’ve seen sick patients who need to go to the hospital outright refuse, because they don’t want to be alone. 

We haven’t seen an increase in the number of 911 calls, but the type of call is changing. I think the general public is very hesitant to go to the ER for minor complaints. They think they can manage at home. The trade-off of people not going to the ER when they should is that they’re waiting too long, and we’re seeing them much sicker. 

And we won’t see the true numbers for many months, but anecdotally, I can say there’s been a rise in calls related to mental health, domestic violence, suicides, substance abuse and overdoses. Social distancing, people being laid off, stores being closed – those all take a toll on people. These social measures are necessary, but it definitely comes with a cost and we’re seeing that on the front lines.

On all our calls, whether it’s a car accident or someone with abdominal pain, we wear a surgical mask, safety glasses or a face shield and gloves. If we screen a person as a potential COVID patient, then we wear a N95 mask and a plastic gown, too. This equipment isn’t new to us. Prior to COVID, we’d do calls for influenza and tuberculosis, and it’s worked for us before. So when I’m properly protected, I’m not worried. But there is this nagging thought in the back of your head: What if I bring it home to my family? I have two young children. 

But having something meaningful to do for work, that’s not stressful at all. I look forward going to work and I’m happy to be part of it. As paramedics, these are events that we train and prepare for. 

It’s been a unifying event for health-care workers. We’re all part of the same health-care continuum, whether it’s long-term care homes, walk-in clinics or hospitals. It’s been a huge opportunity for us to recognize how we each fit into that puzzle.

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