B.C. firefighters have been ordered to stop responding to all but the most dire medical emergency calls during the COVID-19 pandemic, a directive that means they will no longer attend most overdoses.
The order, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, was issued by B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and is aimed at limiting first responders’ exposure to the new coronavirus and the amount of personal protective equipment needed. The directive states firefighters must go only to the most immediately life-threatening calls, such as cardiac arrest, events that are colour-coded as purple.
But in Vancouver, which recorded eight overdose deaths last week, most overdose calls are classified as red – life-threatening or time-critical, but less urgent than purple. Data provided by the fire service show firefighters usually arrive at such calls first.
That is in part because one fire hall is in the heart of the city’s Downtown Eastside, which has a large population of drug users.
A computer-automated dispatch system usually sends both paramedics and fire fighters to purple and red calls. Under the order, effective immediately, only paramedics will be dispatched to most medical calls.
Firefighters can be considered for select red events only if paramedics expect to be delayed by more than 20 minutes, or if technical assistance is required, such as in car accidents.
The classification is determined by what callers report – whether a patient is breathing, for example. However, the information can be unreliable and the person’s condition can change quickly.
On March 13, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told any Canadians abroad “it is time for you to come home.”
Who needs to self-isolate:
- The government asked all Canadians returning from any international travel to self-isolate.
- Anyone who has come in close contact of someone diagnosed with COVID-19 must also self-isolate.
What is self-isolation:
Self-isolation requires you to stay at home, monitor for symptoms, and avoid contact with other people for 14 days, according to the Government of Canada website.
Expectations for those in self-isolation:
- Stay home from work and school; avoid public transit;
- Have supplies such as groceries dropped off at your door;
- Keep a two-metre distance from other people;
- Stay clear of elderly people and anyone with compromised immune systems or chronic conditions.
And some tips to maintain your health and wellness:
- Give your days some structure: Shower and put on jeans, says Lia Grainger. If you work from home, make a separate space for work. Try meditation.
- Don’t just binge Netflix; lift a little: Paul Landini suggests body-weight exercises, or skipping rope to get in some cardio.
- When you do need a break, try one of these 10 books that offer lessons from past pandemics or consult Barry Hertz’s guide to the best Canadian streaming options.
Additional Globe resources:
- If you think may have the new coronavirus, here’s what to do.
- Healthy pantry staples to stock up on and other items to purchase.
- How to manage your anxiety and keep up a fitness routine.
- A visual guide to how you can help “flatten the curve.”
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In a statement provided by spokeswoman Sarah Morris, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) said the order will protect firefighters from potential exposure to COVID-19 and limit the spread of the disease within communities.
As well, “the changes are being made to maintain a reliable supply of personal protective equipment for health-care workers, which includes paramedics,” the statement says.
During the pandemic, first responders have attended calls wearing protective equipment such as N95 face masks.
“To be clear, this order does not change the way BCEHS operates or responds to medical emergencies. Our aim, as always, is to send the closest ambulance to patients as quickly as possible.”
From March 26 to April 1, a period that captures the week when income assistance cheques are distributed and when overdose calls are historically higher, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS) responded to 89 overdose calls, according to the fire services data. Of those, 31 were classified as purple and 58 red or lower.
From Feb. 14 to Feb 20, VFRS responded to 138 overdose calls; 31 were purple, and 107 red.
In March, of all medical calls, VFRS were first on scene 63.4 per cent of the time.
Jonathan Gormick, spokesman for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, said he believes the change “of course” has the potential to delay the response to overdose calls.
“Even if the person making the call is right, and they assess that breathing is present, maybe the person is unconscious, the very nature of opiates is to suppress the respiratory system,” he said. “So if that person is breathing now, chances are, if it’s an opiate overdose, they’re not going to be breathing in a few more minutes.”
If an ambulance is diverted, it could be additional 15 or 20 minutes before fire is dispatched, Capt. Gormick said – adding minutes to a call with few to spare.
“With a call where it can escalate from not super high priority to very high priority very quickly, by the nature of the poisoning, I think it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be an impact on patient care," he said.
In an e-mail, Ms. Morris said paramedic specialists monitor all calls and can upgrade events and recommend sending additional resources, such as firefighters.
“However, we have an ambulance station in the Downtown Eastside, which is fully staffed and regularly responding to overdoses,” she wrote.
The eight overdose deaths in Vancouver, which occurred between March 23 and 29, were the most in a single week since last August and are in contrast with the decline in overdose deaths in the past year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced community spaces and social service providers to close, while some overdose prevention services are shuttered, and others are operating at half-capacity.
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