British Columbia

Federal task force studying B.C. paramedics to find out how to better protect them from COVID-19

Paramedics are at high risk of contracting SARS-CoV 2, the virus that causes COVID-19, but details of what puts them most at risk of exposure have not yet been studied.

Participants will give multiple blood samples to also inform immunity research

The federal government is recruiting paramedics from B.C. for a study to find out how to better protect them on the job. Researchers are looking for 5,000 paramedics in B.C. and Ontario to participate in the study. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Paramedics are at high-risk of being infected with COVID-19 and now the federal government is recruiting paramedics from British Columbia for a study to find out how to better protect them on the job.

Ottawa's COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF) is supporting the research, led in part by Vancouver emergency room physician Dr. Brian Grunau, which will investigate what workplace factors make paramedics more vulnerable to the virus.

Researchers are actively seeking 5,000 paramedics in British Columbia and Ontario to participate in the project. Those participants will be asked to complete surveys and give blood samples three times over a one-year period.

Those samples, according to Grunau, will be tested for antibodies to see what the infection rate of paramedics has been during the pandemic, as some people who presented without symptoms may still have had the virus.

The study will also look at the kind of personal protective equipment individuals were using, and what medical procedures they were engaging in, to try to determine how they got infected and how it could be prevented.

"We actually know very little about the risks of contracting COVID-19 associated with the different tasks paramedics must perform in the course of their duties," said  Catherine Hankins, CITF co-chair, in a statement.

Paramedics in full protective gear practise their emergency response to a drug overdose. The year 2020 set a record for overdose response across B.C. as paramedics battled simultaenous public health emergencies. (Submitted by B.C. Emergency Health Services)

Risky places and procedures

One risk factor, said Grunau, is performing life-saving medical treatments, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), that can increase a first responders exposure to COVID-19. 

While he said this is a procedure also regularly done by health-care workers in a hospital setting, there are certain risk factors — such as working in strange homes that are not sterile or in the confined space of an ambulance— that are particular to paramedics.

"We will have learned a lot of information on how to protect people," said Grunau, speaking Tuesday on CBC's The Early Edition.

Researchers also hope to learn more about virus immunity by studying antibodies in paramedics who have tested positive to see how long those antibodies last over a year. 

Antibody answers

Antibodies are part of the body's method of fighting infection and provide a level of immunity to reinfection. For COVID-19, it is unknown how long antibodies to the virus remain in the blood.

"This group of essential workers is instrumental to getting Canadians through this pandemic," said Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam in a statement. "The more we can reduce infection among paramedics, the better the emergency response of our health-care system will be."

The price tag for the project is approximately $2 million and has been provided by the task force to help track the spread of the virus in priority populations.

Paramedics wanting to learn more information or participate in the study can learn more here. 

Dr Brian Grunau speaks with Stephen Quinn about his study. 5:01

With files from The Early Edition

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