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'It’s a vicious cycle': Region of Waterloo paramedics in and out of code red over the weekend

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Waterloo Region’s ambulances were in a “code red” situation once again on both Friday and Saturday evening – meaning there were no ambulances available to accept new calls.

During the code reds over the weekend, Guelph-Wellington paramedics stepped in to help paramedics in Waterloo Region.

By Sunday afternoon, the Guelph-Wellington region was experiencing a code red of its own.

“In the province of Ontario, I believe it’s under the Ambulance Act, the closest available ambulance will response to the call that requires them, regardless of the priority,” said Dave Bryant, co vice-president of CUPE Local 5191, which represents Region of Waterloo paramedics.

Although it’s nice to have the extra help from neighboring colleagues, experts say extra drive time could aggravate medical distress being experienced by patients.

"The big picture is that we're seeing our scenario get worse and worse and worse,’ stated Leanne Swantko, deputy chief of the Guelph-Wellington Paramedic Service.

Swantko said a code red can both stem from and lead to even longer off-load delay times for paramedics, adding it continues to be a serious concern across the province.

"We did have an ambulance sit at Cambridge memorial hospital for over four hours on off-load delay, and those are four hours that we don't have that ambulance available in our community,” she explained.

Both Swantko and Bryant say in addition to the healthcare worker shortage, frontline staff are feeling “so far behind” in responding to medical emergencies due to ongoing COVID-19 issues, aging baby boomers, staff retiring, a fast-growing population and excessive burnout.

Bryant noted there are even older staff members who are opting to take early retirement because they don’t want “their last years to be this high-stress.”

“No more talk, it’s a simple solution – more resources,” he stated.

He adds it’s not just paramedics that are needed, but nurses, doctors, other healthcare staff and even infrastructure, which can keep every part of the comprehensive hospital system running smoothly on a holistic level.

"We're unable to respond to emergency calls in our community when we're in the back hallway and that is very concerning,” Swantko said.

“It's concerning for our community members of course, anybody who has someone who needs or potentially needs emergency care is compromised."

 

Bryant said CUPE is feeling “very frustrated” and feels that regional council isn't doing enough to address the persisting crisis.

"I've been communicating with some of our current council members and they seems to think everything is okay, but there's obviously an extreme disconnect between the information that they are receiving and the reality that paramedics and frontline staff are experiencing,” he said.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Region of Waterloo councillor Tom Galloway said efforts are being made to help the severe situation.

"Council has a master plan for EMS..and we keep adding more and more resources,” he stated.

This past summer, the region announced its ambulance fleet would be expanding with three 12-hour ambulances, one emergency response unit and the required staff by October.

Then another eight ambulances are expected, but they won’t be available until 2023.

Swantko notes extra ambulances are only useful with the bodies to utilize them, however with burn out amongst paramedics becoming heightened, retention with even new staff is proving to be increasingly problematic.

She also said missed breaks, regular over-time, and spending several hours in hallways with patients waiting to be passed over to E.R. staff, is now the norm for paramedics, who should be responding to urgent healthcare calls – “which, is what they were trained to do.”

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

Swantko says she wants more to be done by politicians from all levels of government in order to address the healthcare crisis as a whole, which she said involves implementing adequate wages and a more sustainable work-life balance as well.

"I'm not too sure, after working this week, how much worse it can get,” Swantko said.

She adds patients are being asked to only call 911 or go to the E.R. if they feel it is absolutely necessary. Patients are being asked to seek alternative methods of medical attention if they are not in fact experiencing an emergency medical situation. Alternatives reaching out to a family doctor, and for those without one, a walk-in clinic could be an option or calling the health line.

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