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Richmond paramedics adapting to COVID-19 precautions

By Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Published 12:04 PDT, Fri May 29, 2020

The job of a paramedic is always crucial, but during the COVID-19 crisis these first responders have taken on new challenges.

Last year, paramedics responded to more than 14,000 medical emergency calls in Richmond—about 40 per day. And a new process introduced during the outbreak allows them to screen for ‘Influenza-like illness’ (ILI) symptoms and take extra precautions.

“Every call we go to now, we have to wear gloves and an N95 mask. We’ve now started acquiring reusable respirators and face shields,” says Johnathan Costa, unit chief for Station 269—located at No. 1 Road and Williams Road.

“If there’s any symptoms of ILI, we put on a plastic impervious gown too,” he adds.

Wearing the gowns feels akin to a plastic bag, says Costa—and they don’t breathe well. Add that to the communication challenges that come with wearing masks and respirators, and the job of paramedics becomes a whole lot harder.

Additional ILI screening allows paramedics to change their game plan with patients who present with possible COVID-19 symptoms.

“We send an ambulance, we get there, we assess them, and if we think they might be better staying at home, we can call our specialists as well,” Costa explains. “For us that’s new, because prior to that we basically took everyone to the hospital.”

Thanks to the new program, some people are allowed to remain at home. Someone at the provincial health authority will call them 24-48 hours later to ask how they’re doing.

Although the work of a paramedic is difficult and often stressful, Costa says it can also be rewarding.

“When you have someone that’s really sick and you give them a treatment that makes their trip to the hospital more comfortable, that’s quite satisfying,” he says. “Sometimes, it happens every now and then when someone’s in cardiac arrest, we’re able to bring them back—and to be able to talk to them when you’ve brought them back from the dead is surreal as well, really satisfying.”

Working in Richmond yields a diverse variety of calls, and Costa says he’s found it to be a supportive community.

“When I came to Richmond, it was kind of like working in a small town. It’s a big city, but it’s got a small town feel.”

So far, none of the team members have become sick. They’ve been diligent about wearing their personal protective equipment and have had many trainings about how to properly put on and take off equipment to avoid contamination.

“Wherever you are, you’re always in reach of a hand sanitizer,” says Costa of the station.

Since the pandemic hit, call volume has dropped from about 1,400 calls a day to about 1,200 throughout BC.

“I’ve noticed (the call volumes) have started to pick up again since we’ve started to go into Phase 2,” says Costa. 

It may seem intimidating to call 911 or go to the hospital during a pandemic, but first responders are taking many precautions to keep people—and themselves—safe. If you’re having chest pain or trouble breathing, Costa says “never hesitate to call when in doubt.”

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