Niagara paramedic learned of positive Covid-19 test on the job, 26 others forced to self-isolate

A Niagara paramedic found out he had tested positive for COVID-19 while on the job, a revelation that led to every staff member in the station immediately pulling on PPE and eventually caused 26 other medics to go into self-isolation in the middle of a pandemic.

Niagara EMS has had an average of 40 staff in self-isolation during the pandemic

Twenty-six paramedics with Niagara Emergency Medical Services were sent into self-isolation after a colleague found out he had tested positive for COVID-19 while at work, according to the service's chief. (Niagara EMS)

A Niagara paramedic found out he had tested positive for COVID-19 while on the job, a revelation that led to every staff member in his station immediately pulling on PPE and eventually forced 26 other medics into self-isolation in the middle of a pandemic.

Niagara Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Chief Kevin Smith would not say when the paramedic tested positive or how long he may have reported to work with symptoms, citing privacy.

It's also unclear how a paramedic who had been tested for the novel coronavirus was able to continue reporting for work.

Signs remind staff to stop and assess themselves before entering any Niagara EMS building, according to the chief. They're also required to fill out and pass a self-declaration checklist of COVID-19 symptoms on a work computer before signing in.

"As much as we need people to maintain our operations, we can't do that at the risk of further illness to themselves or passing it on to others because that will take away form our ability to serve the community," said Smith.

"We take that very seriously and we really enforce that staff let us know if there's any concerns regarding their own personal health ... immediately."

Still, the question remains, how was a trained healthcare professional permitted to walk past those signs, pass a self-declaration and get in an ambulance while waiting to hear back on the results of test for a contagious virus?

Patients not exposed, says paramedic chief

Once the service discovered the medic had tested positive "we took immediate action including the donning of PPE by all staff in the station," said Smith.

The medic was also sent home to self-isolate and staff carried out a deep cleaning of the station and ambulance before being told to head home themselves, according to the chief.

Public health followed up on his condition and history then traced who he had come into contact with, leading to 26 paramedics being directed to self-isolate for 14 days.

The medic is still at home recovering, according to CUPE Local 911 president Jon Brunarski, who declined to comment on the situation further, saying the necessary fact-finding hasn't been able to happen because neither the service nor union has been able to question the paramedic while he's sick.

None of the staff members who came into contact with the paramedic and were ordered to self-isolate have tested positive for the virus to date, said Smith.

And "no concerns" have been identified for patients or other emergency personnel, the chief added in an email to CBC, noting the service had already mandated all of its staff wear a surgical mask, gloves and eye protection on calls.

"It has been confirmed that this paramedic did wear the appropriate PPE at all times when providing patient care meaning that all people this person came in contact with while performing his duties as a paramedic outside of the station were not exposed," stated Smith.

About 40 staff in self-isolation

The paramedic is one of five with Niagara EMS who have tested positive for the virus so far. His case and the fallout it inspired are just part of a wider battle the service has been waging behind the scenes to keep enough staff on the road as dozens have been directed to self-isolate due to possible exposure.

Smith described having five paramedics who have tested positive as "concerning," but said staff have been doing a "great job" of protecting each other and themselves overall.

The number of staff members in self-isolation can fluctuate by the hour, said the chief, but it's mostly hovered around the 40-person mark.

Brunarski said that number sounds about right, though it's changed some over the course of recent weeks.

"It goes up, it goes down," said the union president. "One week we were at 22 and then one week we were up to 62."

Chris Day, a paramedic with Renfrew County, says his team is constantly on high alert, making it a challenge to unwind after long shifts. 0:58

The service employs about 340 full time and part-time paramedics, so those losses make up a significant chunk of the EMS workforce.

"That represents anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent of employees out of the workplace and when you have those kinds of numbers that's on top of other people who may be off for other reasons, whether it be WSIB, parental leave or just normal sick that's not COVID-related, that impacts a workforce," said Smith.

But despite the temporary losses the service has been able to maintain its daily operations through paramedics working overtime and picking up extra shifts, all while continuing to staff extra efforts including a community COVID-19 assessment team and and coaching at long-term care homes, said the chief.

Losing staff to self-isolation hasn't started to take a toll on the paramedics yet, said Brunarski, but discussions have been taking place between the union and senior leadership about mandatory overtime.

"We got into this profession knowing the ambulances need to be staffed," he said. "We're all in it together so we don't want to leave anybody stranded."

Brunarski also credited Niagara EMS with offering to pay part-time paramedics when they're off sick, something he said had never happened before.

"That's how strict they are that they want people to stay home if they're not feeling good."

Like handling an 'atomic bomb'

All five paramedics who tested positive for the virus are still at home recovering. Brunarski said they'll have to be swabbed twice and the results come back negative before they can come back to work.

As a veteran paramedic with 37 years of service under his belt, the union president said he's used to being exposed to outbreaks and that his members understand their role means going places others wouldn't want to.

But COVID-19 has been a different experience altogether.

"It's not unusual for us to gown up and mask up and goggles on, but it's scary," said Brunarski. "It's like working with an atomic bomb. You don't know who has it and who's a carrier and if you're going to get it. And then you're coming home at the end of the day to your family."

About the Author

Dan Taekema is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: daniel.taekema@cbc.ca