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Calls to Ottawa paramedics drop nearly 10 per cent in 2020 because of COVID-19: report

The drop in calls for service also meant paramedics had a better ability in meeting their patient off-loading goals.
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Ottawa Paramedic Service. (Photo/Dani-Elle Dubé)

Calls for Ottawa paramedics from the public dropped about 9.5 per cent in 2020 — which is the first time the service has experienced a decrease in response to volume since 2013.

Ottawa’s central ambulance communications centre answered 132,752 emergency calls, which required 166,890 vehicle responses, which is another decrease of about seven per cent from 2019, the community and protective services committee will hear on Thursday.

On top of that the service said it also experienced a slight reduction in the numbers spent in off-load delays at Ottawa area adult hospitals.

But that doesn’t mean the service isn’t still challenged by the issue of off-road delays, it says.

These decreases, the service outlines in its report, is attributed to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“In 2020, the service expended 46,095 unit hours in off-load delays at Ottawa hospitals,” the report states. “This represents an average of 126 unit hours that were lost per day or five paramedic units continuously held in hospitals over a 24-hour period.”

Those delay hours amount to a loss of 55 full time equivalents or about $6.6 million annually.

“Despite the decrease in response volume, if off-load delay continues at the rate described in this report, the Ottawa Paramedic Service will not be able to achieve the legislated response time performance standards and Council-approved targets in future years,” it says.

The Queensway Carleton Hospital was the hospital least likely to meet the 90th percentile of transfer of care, according to paramedics, at about 70 per cent.

The best was the Montfort Hospital with 79 per cent.

Except for 2020 — an unprecedented year, however — service demand has increased year-over-year.

As a result, city council has approved 14 full time equivalent jobs in the 2021 budget to address the demand.

The Ottawa Paramedic Service provides emergency medical coverage across the city of Ottawa (2,796 square kilometres), while the Ottawa Central Ambulance Communications Centre provides dispatching services to over 10,000 square kilometres of eastern Ontario including Ottawa, the United Counties of Prescott-Russell, Cornwall and the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.

But with COVID-19 came a new set of challenges to deal with.

Ottawa paramedics say it has experienced “significant challenges with staffing,” in particular, at the onset of the pandemic. This happened when healthcare workers who had travelled outside of the country after March 13 were ordered by the provincial government to stay home in self-isolation for 14 days — with, or without symptoms.

“The Service continued to experience staffing pressures throughout the year as a result of provincial isolation and quarantine guidelines for healthcare workers who had been exposed to a probable case of COVID-19 in or outside of the workplace, or who were showing signs or symptoms consistent with COVID-19,” the report explains.

Staffing was also stretched when paramedics were required to work in long-term care homes and swabbing centres.

The shortage of PPE — particularly N95 masks — was also a problem, a problem that was rectified when the federal and provincial governments signed an agreement with 3M Canada.

There are several reasons for the decrease in service, but it all comes down to the impacts of COVID-19.

Because COVID-19 meant no indoor and outdoor gatherings, this further decreased demand for paramedic services in the city.

“It has been reported that residents avoided healthcare settings due to a perception that ambulances and hospitals were high-risk locations for the transmission of COVID-19,” the report states. “From March to July, response volume remained significantly lower compared to 2019, not returning to near pre-pandemic volumes until August.”

Despite the challenges — old and new — the service says it was still be able to meeting legislated and council-directed response time performance standards.

Response times for patients given the CTAS score of 5 (patients with the highest acuity and placed as highest priority) were met almost 97 per cent of the time.

Paramedics were also able to meet response times for CTAS 4 patients just over 94 per cent of the time.

Response, in particular, for sudden cardiac arrests were achieved  over 77 per cent of the time — an achievement that has been steadily increasing since 2016.


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