New research aims to protect paramedics against COVID-19 by studying their blood

Researchers are now analyzing blood samples from Ontario paramedics to see if they are being adequately protected against COVID-19 and to determine how many have developed antibodies since the pandemic began.

Nearly 900 Ontario paramedics have volunteered to give blood samples

Paramedics work at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus on April 12, 2021. Nearly three dozen city paramedics are providing blood samples as part of research that looks into COVID-19 antibodies. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Researchers are analyzing blood samples from Ontario paramedics to see if they are being adequately protected against COVID-19 and to determine how many have developed antibodies since the pandemic began.

The study is being led by researchers in both Ontario and British Columbia and is supported by Ottawa's COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF).

Close to 900 paramedics in Ontario have already volunteered to participate, including about 35 in Ottawa, said Tracy Kirkham, a scientist at the Occupational Cancer Research Centre at Ontario Health and one of the project's primary investigators.

The participants — which include paramedics from British Columbia as well — are being asked to complete surveys and give blood samples three times over a one-year period.

"It's about protecting paramedics," Kirkham said.

"We're really hoping we can identify what increases and decreases the risk of infection and also learn how paramedic risk may compare to other occupations."

How to prevent infection

The study will look at the kind of personal protective equipment paramedics have been using and what medical procedures they've been engaging in, in order to determine how they got infected and how it could have been prevented.

The data may also indicate how many paramedics were out in the field while unknowingly being infected with COVID-19.

Paramedics register patients at a drive-through COVID-19 test centre in Ottawa in September 2020. About 35 Ottawa paramedics are taking part in the study. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Paramedics have been on the frontline of the COVID-19 response since the beginning of the pandemic, dealing with the public during emergency calls, at testing sites and now at vaccination clinics.

Their risk of coming in contact with the virus is considerably high, Kirkham said, given their often unpredictable work environments.

"Out in the field, paramedics are often performing these tasks on the floor or sometimes even in more awkward conditions," Kirkham said.

"These types of positions may also compromise the mask fit that they have for their protection."

Beyond just paramedics

The research provides a great opportunity to learn how to keep everyone virus free, not just paramedics, said Darryl Wilton, president of the Ontario Paramedic Association.

"It's not about us getting sick, it's not about the paramedics," Wilton said.

"Our next patient could be immunocompromised with anything from ALS to MS to cancer. And if we pass it onto them it's not an infection, it's a death sentence."

Researchers are also hoping to learn more about virus immunity and how long antibodies last over the course of a year.

They're actively seeking 5,000 paramedics to participate in the project, and will open up eligibility to paramedics in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the coming weeks.

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