N.S. paramedics to wear industrial face masks to guard against COVID-19

Nova Scotia paramedics will soon be wearing industrial-grade face masks to respond to calls where there may be a COVID-19 risk amid concerns about a shortage of personal protective equipment for front-line health-care workers. 

Emergency Health Services has purchased reusable respirators that use disposable filters, which can be replaced. The same type of masks are often used in construction and industrial settings such as welding when workers have to deal with hazardous airborne materials. 

Paramedics wear a combination of surgical and N95 masks, but Emergency Health Services wanted equipment that could be reused, given growing worries about the long-term availability of masks, said Jeff Fraser, director of provincial operations. 

"Once we realized we were going to be limited in getting our regular supply of masks in, we had to come up with a Plan B," he said.

Staff worked with public health officials and hospitals to ensure the masks were approved. Certified personnel started fitting front-line staff individually Friday night. The process takes about half an hour for each person. 

The masks will become a required part of each paramedic's kit and be "as important for showing up to work with steel-toed boots," Fraser said. 

For now, paramedics will start wearing them for calls where there is a possible COVID-19 transmission risk or where the risk is unknown, for instance treating people in a car crash who didn't personally call 911.

"We only want to use it when we need it because we know that inevitably, we may be consuming a lot more," said Fraser. 

Threat of shortages

Earlier this week, the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario and Ontario Medical Association urged its provincial government to address the production of protective equipment for frontline health-care workers as the threat of shortage becomes more realistic.

In British Columbia, where as of Wednesday 64 COVID-19 patients were in hospital, the provincial health officer said protective supplies are being used at a dramatically higher rate than predicted and the province is strategizing ways to secure more gowns, gloves and masks. 

If public health officials deem that community contagion is happening, Fraser said protocol will change.

"In the business we're in, we always plan for the worst and hope for the best. We're always looking at the worst-case scenario. And that worst-case scenario may be that every single call may require us to dress for a COVID-19 calls."

Robert Short/CBC

Two paramedics are now self-isolating after treating people who called 911 but did not disclose their potential exposure to COVID-19.

Fraser said as a result, paramedics may also be asking additional questions when they arrive at a call to assess what they should be wearing to respond.

"It does take a little longer when we arrive on scene maybe before our paramedics engage, but for the paramedic's safety and everybody else's safety we want to make sure we treat the issue … to prevent community spread."

He reiterated comments from Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, who said Tuesday that people need to be honest with health-care providers. 

"You're at the mercy of what people tell you," Fraser said. "We're in this all together. If they tell us what their travel history has been, what their symptoms have been, we can best be prepared to deal with them by protecting some of our most vulnerable people, which are our front-line paramedic staff."

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