Nova Scotia

Dishonest 911 callers put N.S. paramedics at risk of COVID-19, union says

The union that represents paramedics in Nova Scotia is pleading for people to be honest about their potential COVID-19 exposure when speaking with 911 after calls forced several members to self isolate as a precaution.

'What happens then is our paramedics are not prepared the way that they should be going into that scene'

The union that represents paramedics in Nova Scotia and the province's chief medical officer of health are pleading for people to be honest about their potential COVID-19 exposure when speaking with 911 dispatchers. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The union that represents paramedics in Nova Scotia is pleading for people to be honest about their potential COVID-19 exposure when speaking with 911, after calls forced several members to self-isolate as a precaution.

Dispatchers are asking callers additional screening questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some people are not disclosing recent international travel or other information that may put paramedics at risk, said Michael Nickerson, a business manager and president for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727, which represents paramedics and LifeFlight nurses. 

"Maybe they have a fear of self-isolation or they don't want to self-isolate. But what happens then is our paramedics are not prepared the way that they should be going into that scene," he said.

Nationally, there have been concerns about a shortage of personal protective equipment for front-line health-care workers.

Michael Nickerson, president for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 727, says some people are not disclosing recent international travel that may put paramedics at risk. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Due to concerns about supply, Nickerson said wearing full protective gear isn't feasible at every call.

However, if someone who needs help discloses they are in the process of self-isolating or may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus, the first responders will take additional precautions.

CBC News has contacted Emergency Health Services for more information and is awaiting a response.

'It's unfortunate I have to say this'

On Tuesday, the Nova Scotia government announced 10 news cases of COVID-19, bringing the provincial total to 51.

During a briefing Tuesday afternoon, chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang said there have been instances where people were not honest about their risk factors.

"It's unfortunate I have to say this," Strang said as he implored people to tell the truth about their travel history and to only call 911 in an emergency.

He said people need to be up front about their health information to get proper care, and to protect health-care providers and other people in health-care facilities.

"People will receive the care they need no matter what your health issue is, but if you do not tell the truth about travel history, we cannot be alerted about potential for COVID-19 and you're quite frankly putting other people, especially our health-care workers, who are very vulnerable and working extremely hard, you're putting them at risk," he said.

Nickerson stressed the additional screening questions don't affect ambulance response times because a crew is already on the way. 

"Maybe people are thinking answering these questions is slowing things down, in fact, it's not," he said.

Nickerson isn’t sure how many Nova Scotia paramedics are in self-isolation, but says there are still enough people working to meet demands. (Robert Short/CBC)

In Quebec, two paramedics have been confirmed to have the virus, but it's unclear how they contracted it.

The ambulance service HRH Services Préhospitaliers said a total of 18 employees were taken off the road because they have symptoms that could be traced to COVID-19, or because they were in contact with the infected individuals. There have been four deaths and 628 confirmed cases in Quebec.

Nickerson isn't sure how many Nova Scotia paramedics are in self-isolation and he said there are still enough people working to meet demands, but he said this is adding to the anxiety they're experiencing.

"If all the paramedics are self-isolated because of potential exposure [to COVID-19] that could have been mitigated by answering questions truthfully, we won't have paramedics on the street or we won't have enough of them," he said.

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