Saskatchewan paramedics say COVID-19 tore dangerous holes in what many call the safety net of the health-care system — gaps some believe were already forming.
Paul Hills, president of the Saskatoon Paramedic Association — the union representing paramedics in the Saskatoon area — said rising call numbers, increased wait times at hospitals and the cumulative stress of the pandemic are taking their toll on the very front of the front line responders.
“The way I’ve been trying to think about it, EMS is almost like a raft on a river,” Hills said. “We’re going to get it from the front end, we’re getting it at some point from the back end, and we are technically without paddles and we are without paddlers.”
Union members are seeing record-breaking call volumes in recent weeks, Hills said.
Those have been coupled with longer “off-load delays” at overwhelmed hospitals, meaning paramedics spend more time waiting with patients in hospital hallways before they can get back on the road. Hills said that is only amplified by the stress the pandemic has placed on the public and the extra safety precautions paramedics are following to do their jobs.
“In the last month, we’ve had record-breaking shifts — numbers in 12-hour (periods) we’ve never seen before,” Hills said. “We used to think 50 calls in 12 hours was crazy. Then you start to see 60s, and 70s, and then last week we saw what I think is our first 80.”
Observers say it’s amping up the pressure on a profession some feel did not receive adequate funding in the first place.
“This isn’t just happening over the last couple of years. This is decades of just neglect,” said Paramedics Services Chiefs of Saskatchewan president Kelly Prime, who owns and operates EMS services in the eastern part of the province.
Rural services are seeing even greater strain because of the long trips they make to urban centres to drop off patients, Prime said.
Emergency service operators say part of the crunch is due to the pandemic and the resulting demand on resources, but calls numbers have been growing for years.
“This is decades of different governments not investing into the system,” Prime said.
In an unattributed statement, Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Health highlighted $4.33 million in the last budget for services in Saskatoon and Regina. The ministry said it’s aware that delays at hospitals are affecting EMS services and noted $1.56 million was spent to reduce wait times at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon.
“We know that our paramedics are at the front line of the health care system,” the statement said.
Prime said he hopes the short-term crisis can lead to longer-term changes. He wants recommendations from a 2009 EMS review acted upon. Ideally, that would include greater integration with other health care services and a strategy for EMS services in rural and remote areas, he said.
Hills said paramedics have made great strides in peer support and mental health awareness, but the weight of the work is a concern.
“All these things are being weathered away by that river, and it’s hard to know where to build the dam and how to stop the flow.”