NL emergency services struggle to cover Omicron-related staff shortage

Paramedics from Newfoundland and Labrador say the latest wave of COVID-19 has exacerbated their already high stress levels. (CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador rescuers and volunteers struggle to catch up as many workers are forced into isolation due to exposure to COVID-19 or positive test results.

Brad Forward, a paramedic in rural Newfoundland, said nearly 50 percent of his colleagues were absent at some point because of COVID-19.

“The workload fell a bit on those who were still standing,” Forward said in an interview with CBC News. “With the increase in the number of cases… through the roof, anxiety levels and stress levels rose quite quickly.”

The rapidly spreading Omicron variant has left hundreds of health workers in Newfoundland and Labrador in isolation at a time when the system is already under strain.

While other events can be canceled, medical emergencies never end, Forward said.

“We’re almost at the point now where, you know, we almost have to try and be in two places at once. Really, the only way we can really handle it is to jump into the work,” he said. “That’s all we can do until we get a chance to quit.”

Forward said ambulance services are still available to those who need them, although it may take longer than usual due to the layers of personal protective equipment they have to put on.

“If you need help, call. Someone is coming.’

Glovertown’s Jayne Denty says the race to comply with rapidly changing protocols is hurting staff morale, as well as response times.

“It has had a big impact on us mentally and physically,” she says. “It’s hard to hold onto your passion and keep working.”

Denty said a shortage of paramedics that predated the pandemic has only been exacerbated by the ongoing health crisis.

“So we work a lot of overtime and do a lot of on-call workers,” she said. “A lot of people are away from their families or put their families on hold during the day. So it was difficult.”

‘An extra weight’

CBC News has asked regional health authorities about the number of paramedics currently in self-isolation, although that number is difficult to determine with fluctuating data.

Rodney Gaudet, the president of the Paramedics Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, said he doesn’t have the exact number.

Rodney Gaudet, president of the Paramedic Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, said paramedics take time for colleagues forced to self-isolate because of COVID-19. (Katie Breen/CBC)

He said the isolation timelines vary depending on whether a person is absent because they are symptomatic or waiting for test results to be backed up. Gaudet said it is now all hands on deck for NL paramedics.

“Typically, every time someone is out of isolation, other people within that service or even neighboring services jump in to help support,” he said.

Gaudet said two years of pandemic have made an already stressful job more difficult.

“Every time a new wave comes, it’s just an extra weight on our shoulders,” he said.

As they respond to emergencies among the general public, paramedics wear protective gear and patients are screened for COVID-19 symptoms. Gaudet said it’s important to be honest in answering those questions so that paramedics can adequately protect themselves.

Fire brigades, RNC have prepared contingency plans

Omicron-induced isolation also affects volunteer fire departments, the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services said Thursday.

Dwayne Antle, who is also the fire chief in the city of Come By Chance, said volunteers conducted online training and fire prevention activities. Antle said firefighter shortages are a real concern, and he has already heard of a fire hall having to enlist help from a neighboring community.

Duane Antle, chief of the Come by Chance volunteer fire department and president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services, said fire departments have been preparing for this wave of COVID-19. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

“It leaves you in a pretty bad situation as a fire chief because you don’t know if you have enough people to respond.”

However, Antle said fire halls have contingency plans to address the volunteer shortage during this wave, including creating a list of on-call volunteers.

“A lot has been planned to ensure that if they need our fire brigades across this province to be there for them and to help them, they will get the help they need.”

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Const. James Cadigan said the RNC also has contingency plans in the event that a significant number of officers need to self-isolate, including reassigning officers to various roles.

He said some frontline officials are in isolation because of COVID-19 but would not reveal how many.

“This kind of information really changes on a daily basis and for security reasons we won’t release that information,” he said.

He said the RNC has a COVID-19 response team that has developed protocols to reduce the risk.

Last week, NL Public Health shortened the COVID-19 isolation periods to reflect the shorter incubation period of the dominant Omicron variant and evidence suggesting that people who are fully vaccinated shed the virus for a shorter period of time.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said the high number of isolated health workers also played a role in the decision to change isolation guidelines.

“This has undoubtedly had a major impact on the delivery of essential services, and we need to keep that in mind and take that into consideration when making these kinds of decisions, as everywhere else.”

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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