Nfld. & Labrador

Paramedic catches COVID-19, as N.L.'s first responders struggle with taxed system

For the first time, a paramedic in Newfoundland and Labrador has been diagnosed with COVID-19, CBC News has learned, and it's not yet clear whether that person was positive on the job.

Not yet clear whether first paramedic in N.L. to test positive had contact with public while positive

The province's first paramedic to contract COVID-19 is self-isolating, but the case is still under investigation, according to a union representative. (Colin Butler/CBC)

A paramedic in Newfoundland and Labrador has been diagnosed with COVID-19, CBC News has learned, and it's not yet clear whether that person was positive on the job.

"They are currently doing well," said Rodney Gaudet, president of the Paramedic Association of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Gaudet could not confirm whether the paramedic made contact with members of the public while on the job, citing a continuing investigation by public health. He said it also wasn't clear where the paramedic caught the virus.

The case is the first among the province's 900 or so paramedics, he confirmed, despite close and prolonged contact with patients.

It's an added stress on a system already burdened by the pandemic, Gaudet said. A number of his members are already in isolation due to an outbreak at St. Clare's Mercy Hospital, as well as various other potential exposures.

"Those that are not isolating, they're having to pick up extra shifts, pick up the slack," he said. "That's creating an extra strain on them."

Eastern Health told CBC in an email that about 90 paramedics who worked at St. Clare's from Feb. 19 to 26 were tested, but would not say whether any of them had the virus.

"For privacy reasons, we are unable to provide the classification of employees who tested positive," the statement said.

System stretched

Paramedics average about 10 calls in every 12-hour shift, said Gaudet. They're often required to enter homes, then sit with possibly contagious patients in the back of an ambulance while waiting for a spot at a hospital emergency department.

They're "basically stuck there until a bed becomes available," he said. "We've had people waiting in there for hours."

Rodney Gaudet, president of the Paramedic Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, confirmed a positive case among his members on Tuesday. (Katie Breen/CBC)

Paramedics wear full protective equipment, which is removed before entering the front of the ambulance. At least one paramedic remains in close proximity to the patient until they're admitted to hospital, wearing gloves, a mask and face shield.

Those long off-load delays further tax ambulance services, which have seen an uptick in calls in the last year, said Gaudet.

"That creates quite a strain on our system. We are already understaffed … and now with this weighing us down further, it makes it harder on the practitioners," Gaudet said.

Close to 100 per cent of paramedics in the St. John's metro area have been immunized, Gaudet said, but a "number" of his members are still waiting for the vaccine.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn