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Paramedics at a 'breaking point' during COVID-19 pandemic

Last Updated Jan 12, 2021 at 6:51 pm EST

Toronto’s paramedics are sounding the alarm over the added workload and stress they’re facing as a result of more COVID-19 related medical calls and a rise in cases.

The union representing them says more help is needed on the front lines to ease the strain.

“It is stressful. It is demoralizing. We are completely burned out and beaten down,” says one paramedic who spoke to CityNews, but chose not to be identified, to protect him from any consequences for speaking up.

“We’re coming into work every day, knowing that overtime has been called out, that we’re short staffed, that call volumes are critical,” he said. “We are really running on half empty.”

He describes a typical day as one with no washroom breaks, quick meals while sitting on the bumper of an ambulance, continuously sanitizing vehicles and constantly changing personal protective equipment (PPE) between calls.

Mike Merriman, the paramedic unit chair for CUPE Local 416, believes more full-time staff could be hired.

“They’ve reached the breaking point,” Merriman said. “There weren’t enough staff prior to COVID and they’ve added no additional paramedics during COVID.”

Toronto Paramedic Services told CityNews that there are 1,119 full-time medics at this point and another 243 considered part-time. Just 166 were hired last year to cover attrition.

As for any additional support, Paramedic Chief Gord McEachen said it’s all about communicating with staff about their needs.

“We’ve been very diligent at providing the most up to date information from our public health colleagues,” he said. “So we’ve really tried to enhance our level of support on the mental health side for staff with various access points.”

According to the latest data, the number of paramedic emergency calls in 2020 were the lowest they’ve been since 2016. There were 307,873 calls last year compared to 336,573 in 2019. Despite call volumes being lower, paramedics say the toll on them is much higher due to the pandemic.

Paramedic emergency calls from 2016 to 2020

The paramedic who spoke with CityNews emphasized that he’s not complaining. He loves his job, understands the importance and appreciates the extra effort other front line workers are putting in. But he’s worried for his safety while trying to take care of others at the same time.

“I’m still hesitant to go home and hug my new wife after a day where we’ve seen lots of COVID patients,” he said. “I mean sometimes I won’t even come upstairs. I’ll go hang out in my basement.”