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Niagara EMS pledge ‘comprehensive investigation’ into how medic came to work with COVID-19

Niagara Emergency Medical Services (EMS) says it will investigate how and why a paramedic who found out he’d tested positive for COVID-19 on the job continued to show up for work while awaiting his results, despite strict protocols put in place to protect staff from the virus.

The service needs to better understand how the situation that forced 26 other medics to stop working and self-isolate was allowed to occur, said Chief Kevin Smith Wednesday, promising a “comprehensive investigation” that will “highlight opportunities for improvement.”

It’s still unclear when the medic received his test result and how long he continued working while waiting to hear back. Smith has declined to provide those details, citing privacy.

What is clear is that anyone who undergoes testing for the novel coronavirus is supposed to be instructed to self-isolate.

Those with symptoms are directed by both public health and the assessment centre where they’re tested to isolate until they they received a negative result, said Niagara Region Public Health spokesperson Meredith Maxwell. The same is expected when a test is administered by a primary health-care provider, she added.

Four other paramedics with Niagara EMS who have tested positive for the virus so far and dozens have been directed to self-isolate after possible exposure, said Smith.

“In all other situations that I am aware of, COVID-19 testing of our staff has been at the direction of Public Health who have instructed paramedics to remain out of the workplace in self-isolation pending test results,” he stated.

Throughout the pandemic the service has been battling to maintain staffing levels, with the number of paramedics in self-isolation ranging from 22 to 62, according to CUPE Local 911 president Jon Brunarski, who declined to comment on the incident involving the paramedic until the necessary fact-finding can be carried out.

The 26 paramedics sent into self-isolation represent almost eight per cent of the total 340 full-time and part-time paramedics who work for the service.

Before they can enter any building or begin work, Niagara paramedics are subjected to daily screenings designed to confirm they have no symptoms of COVID-19, said public health.

Signs reminding staff to stop and assess themselves are also posted outside all EMS facilities and paramedics are required to pass a self-declaration checklist about the virus before signing in for the day.

In order to understand how an employee was able to bypass those protocols the service will need the paramedic in question to participate in the review, which means the answers won’t be known until he recovers and returns to work.

EMS Chief Kevin Smith says there’s been a “high-degree of attention and emphasis” on protocols around COVID-19 after 26 paramedics were forced to self-isolate. (Niagara EMS)

When Niagara EMS became aware of the test, every person at the station was ordered to don personal protective equipment (PPE) and the paramedic’s ambulance was subjected to a deep cleaning.

None of the staff members who came into contact with the paramedic and were ordered to self-isolate have tested positive for the virus to date, Smith previously told CBC.

The service has also determined the paramedic was wearing a surgical mask, gloves and eye protection on calls, meaning all patients and other emergency personnel he came into contact with were not exposed, he added.

Relying on people to report symptoms

When asked if the situation shows the protocols put in place to keep those with symptoms from reporting to work failed, the chief said the service, like the rest of society, relies on people to report illnesses during screenings and follow preventative policies.

“Paramedics operate in a very unique environment making it even more essential that the established directives are followed and the correct instruction is provided and adhered to,” Smith pointed out.

He did note one aspect of COVID-19 that makes it especially challenging to identify — symptoms can mimic other more common ailments such as allergies or a common cold.

However, following the mass self-isolation, the chief said he’s noticed  a “high degree of attention and emphasis” on COVID-19 protocols among Niagara’s paramedics.

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