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Local Paramedics Talk Burnout, Staff Shortages

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Rural paramedics are facing burnout, with daily COVID-19 cases having reached record levels in January. The ongoing crisis has had cascading effects, not the least of which is the increasing degree of mental health concerns that have only gotten more serious and persistent over the course of the past two years.

Emergency responders have seen the worst of the human toll exacted by COVID-19—and recently, much of the staff at stations serving Niverville and the surrounding area have been either hit with COVID themselves or been unable to work.

The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals (MAHCP), the union that represents more than 800 rural paramedics, calls the situation a staffing crisis and has been sounding the alarm.

The problem has been getting worse since they initially reported about staffing issues last summer. On January 6, they formally asked Manitoba’s government for a response.

Since that time, no response has been received.

The most recent MAHCP report points to some staggering figures. There have been more than 17,000 hours when ambulances were out of service and unavailable to assist Manitobans in an emergency. This troubling statistic is a five-year high, and there’s no sign of the trend improving due to the ever-increasing demand on ambulances and paramedics right when they are at their shortest supply.

“During the pandemic, rural paramedics have worked unprecedented levels of overtime and continue to do so, but they can’t keep up,” says Bob Moroz, president of the MAHCP. “The Manitoba Government refuses to address the staffing crisis that is overwhelming rural paramedics.”

Holiday Burnout

Two local paramedics can confirm the prevalence of burnout facing many exhausted emergency responders. They agreed to share their experiences with the Citizen on the condition of anonymity.

Paramedic One says that over the holiday season calls for emergency services typically rise, but December 2021 was even busier than usual for a number reasons.

“Things over the Christmas holidays were much busier than past holidays for the following reasons: the increase number in COVID cases and the new provincial protocol to move patients from city hospital to rural hospital,” they say of their workload. “City paramedics are not running patients out here. Rural medics are expected to pick up and drop off these patients.”

They also report that staff are calling in sick with either COVID-like symptoms or debilitating mental and emotional fatigue.

“Things always get busier over the holidays,” agrees Paramedic Two, who adds that there was also increased call volume this year due to a spike in opioid overdoses. “We were also plagued with illness this year, making us more short-staffed than usual. The general challenges are fatigue and lack of support.”

Paramedic One confirms that the province’s southern region sometimes sees eight trucks pulled at once because there is no one to staff them.

Unprecedented Overtime

The staffing issue is the largest challenge facing emergency personnel, and it’s one that already existed before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paramedic One explains that rural Manitoba has always lost paramedics to the city because the city pays on average $8/hour more. When COVID-19 hit, it turned a bad situation into one that was much worse.

Shared Health has provided no relief, they say.

“Paramedics have left over the last year or two for other opportunities,” says Paramedic One. “However, Shared Health has made the decision to leave those positions vacant. They are left vacant and a small group of full-time floats, in addition to a small group of casual paramedics, are sent out to fill the void. There has only been one hiring effort in the last year or two at most.”

In general, the rural paramedics left carrying the responsibility of responding to rural Manitobans in the southeast are working overtime as the rule, not the exception.

Paramedics in the southern region are working multiple 24-hours shifts per week, trying to cover for others who are out sick. They say that staff are doing their best to pick up shifts to fill the void and are regularly working 60 to 72 hours weekly.

“People who become paramedics care deeply about people and worry that they will not get the help that they need if trucks have to be pulled,” says this paramedic. “The cycle of working so much extra time with the intention to ensure that our neighbours will have the help they need, when they need it, is the fuel that burns a paramedic out. It takes a large toll mentally and physically working so many hours, especially if those hours are concurrent without any break. Especially 24-hour shifts. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to put our head down in the early hours of the morning after a call to get a nap in.”

Overwhelmed and Afraid

Overall, these two paramedics zero in on the message that they want the community to know what it’s like being a paramedic during a pandemic: they are overwhelmed and afraid that they won’t be able to be there when rural Manitobans need them most.

“It is a challenging time to be a paramedic,” says Paramedic One. “We respond to calls where we see some of the sickest COVID patients. We do everything in our power to help, but there have been so many patients who we haven’t been able to help. We’ve had to take patients to Winnipeg and as far as Brandon as of late because there isn’t enough room in our hospitals to house every sick patient who needs our help. Our system is so incredibly overwhelmed and EMS is exhausted.”

Paramedic Two concurs: “I am pretty sure we are all burnt out. I know I am. The call volume has increased significantly. There is no room in the hospitals. I really don’t know what to say. COVID is a severe illness or it can be mild. I’ve seen the sick people. I’ve seen the backlogs. It needs to be treated with respect.”

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