Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia paramedics say calls increasing after pandemic lull

The union representing paramedics in Nova Scotia says it has started a social media campaign to highlight the number of shifts going unfilled and the number of ambulances out of service daily due to increased call volumes now that the initial wave of COVID-19 has subsided.

Union says hospital offload delays on the increase again, paramedics starting to refuse overtime

The union representing Nova Scotia paramedics says call volumes are increasing again after a lull during the pandemic and that's causing problems with overtime and hospital offload delays. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Nova Scotia paramedics say call volumes are increasing after a lull during the pandemic — and their union says that's causing increased overtime requests and ambulance offload delays at hospitals.

Michael Nickerson, business agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers local 727 representing paramedics, said that's why the union started a social media campaign to highlight the number of shifts going unfilled and the number of ambulances out of service daily.

"The situation is basically back to pre-COVID," he said. "We're seeing a lot of shift overruns amongst our members and a lot of roadside postings for extended periods of time, missed meal breaks [and] some offload delays, as well."

The Nova Scotia Health Authority said in an email that offload delays are increasing as a result of the pandemic.

"COVID-19 has had an impact on efforts to address this issue," said Angela Bransfield, director of policy and planning and patient flow.

"For example, delays in patients waiting for long-term care placement are now being further impacted."

Michael Nickerson, business agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers, says the pandemic provided paramedics with a bit of a break, but call volumes are increasing again. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Bransfield said the province is committed to improving ambulance offload times now that the first wave of the pandemic has subsided.

On Wednesday, the union was reporting 14 unfilled shifts and seven ambulances out of service. The campaign is similar to the union's code critical campaign that ran last year, alerting the public on days when no ambulances were available for calls.

"The big issue seems to be staffing and it's not all the time, but it is an issue and we just want to make the public aware that just because COVID happened, that we still have these normal issues to deal with, as well," said Nickerson.

Paramedics work 12-hour shifts and are often told to add up to four extra hours, he said, and they are starting to refuse to take additional overtime on their days off.

That was happening before the pandemic, but it eased considerably over the last few months, said Nickerson.

"I don't want to say it was a break for the paramedics, because they had a lot more to worry about in respect to COVID, but in turn it was kind of a little break for them because they were getting their meal breaks consistently and they were getting off on time consistently and the call volume was much less than what it is now," he said.

One day last week, paramedics got 731 calls across the province and they are getting tired, Nickerson said.

'Danger territory' creeping up

The province could hire more paramedics, but that wouldn't change the underlying problems, he said.

"We just wanted to make the public aware that just because COVID happened and everything seemed fine for a while, we're creeping back up into the danger territory that we highlighted last year and the year before."

Nickerson said he's heard some reports of paramedics waiting five to six hours to offload patients at the hospital.

He said the government should be able to deal with two issues at the same time, especially now that the first wave of COVID-19 has subsided.

"We don't want to forget COVID or let our guard down by any means, and we need to be prepared, but we also have to discuss the day-to-day issues as well."

In an email, the Department of Health and Wellness said paramedic staffing was under extra pressure during the pandemic due to COVID-19 testing and isolation requirements.

It says now that the first wave has passed, the department will be looking closely at any improvements it can make on that aspect.

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About the Author

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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