British Columbia

COVID-19 calls to 911 now outnumber other emergency calls in B.C. — but many are driven by fear

COVID-19-related distress calls are overtaking all others to 911 in B.C. But first responders say many of those calls are driven by fear, influenza or confusion.

'We are trying to send a message of reassurance, even though it is scary as hell'

If you have symptoms call 811. Leave 911 for real emergencies, such as respiratory distress, paramedics urge. (Ambulance Paramedics of B.C.)

COVID-19-related distress calls are overtaking all others to 911 in B.C.

But first responders say many of those calls are driven by fear, influenza or confusion, as the reality of what's happening hits.

B.C. paramedics estimate 75 per cent of the 911 calls are now COVID-19 related.

They're urging people to follow the provincial guidelines, call 811 or self-check, unless it's serious, to save emergency services for those in real trouble.

'People finally getting it'

Troy Clifford says in the past 48 hours he's seen Metro Vancouver's streets go quiet.

"People are finally getting it," said Clifford, provincial president of the union that represents ambulance paramedics and emergency dispatchers.

He is trying to reassure people, despite the pandemic.

Paramedics remind people to stay home, to keep them and others safe. (Submitted by Troy Clifford)

He says paramedics and health workers share the public's fear, with many keeping away from family off-shift as more becomes known about the virus that can lead to the COVID-19 syndrome.

"There is an angst out there. A fear of potential exposure, not wanting to be a burden on the system — and a fear of the unknown," said Clifford.

The crisis has become more real, with stricter movement restrictions and now the prospect of fines or jail for ignoring public health orders in Canada.

School, exercise and work have all moved in-home and online as people eschew anything in person to hinder the path of the pathogen in this province.

A first responders' vehicle is seen in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Vancouver on Thursday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Premier John Horgan announced new emergency orders Thursday giving the province more power, as people read about staggering numbers of people hit with the infection in Spain, Italy and New York, where one hospital was forced to build a makeshift morgue to handle the overflow of the dead.

All that is spiking fearful calls to 911.

Every one of those calls must be met by paramedics who are fully suited-up in personal protective equipment.

"To do that multiple times in a day, it's exhausting and mentally draining," said Dave Leary, who works as a paramedic in Delta-Surrey. "We must deploy that every single time we show up to those calls."

Calls that are not emergencies use up first-responders' energy — and crucial supplies.

Two ambulance paramedics want to remind people to stay home and stay apart. (Submitted by Troy Clifford)

Clifford urges people to use the proper protocol. For questions about potential cases or symptoms, people are encouraged to use the online assessment tool or call 811.

If somebody can't breathe, call 911.

Non-COVID-19 calls are down

As COVID-19 calls ramp up, other calls to 911 are down.

That's due in part to people staying home, which cuts down on falls, assaults and accidents.

Troy Clifford is pictured in full personal protective gear. (Troy Clifford)

Clifford suspects the dip in non-COVID calls is also fear. He believes some people are afraid to call 911 because they fear exposure to the virus in hospital.

He says the message they are trying to send is like walking a tightrope.

"We are trying to send a message of reassurance, even though it is scary as hell," said Clifford.

Clifford said paramedics appreciate the support they are seeing in the community, whether it's the fountain in front of the legislature lit in their honour or the seven o'clock tribute.

"It's amazing to see that and I think that all of our first responders and medical workers appreciate the support. It's a good feeling to know that people know that we are out there and we have their backs. It helps us cope."

B.C. ambulance paramedics are relying on people to listen to health warnings, stay apart and stay home. (Provincial Public Education APBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca

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