Saskatchewan is facing a provincewide shortage of ambulances, as well as long wait times for EMS responses, according to the province's largest health-care union.
Services are backed-up across the province — in both rural and urban settings — with Canora, Kamsack, Big River and Shellbrook hit particularly hard, said Bashir Jalloh, president of CUPE Health Care Workers Local 5430.
"The main reason is because of the overcrowded emergency room and the chronic understaffing," Jalloh said. "That is what is leading to these increased wait times for ambulances in this province. And we have been talking about this for a long, long time."
A Regina police officer experienced the problem first hand on Wednesday when police were called to Rosemont Elementary School.
Terry Lazarou, spokesperson for Regina Public Schools, told the CBC on Thursday that the school called 911 saying they had a "student at risk" on the premises.
Regina Police Service spokesperson Lesley Parker said that once at the school, an officer called for an ambulance. According to EMS dispatch recordings provided to the CBC, an ambulance was not available.
Eventually, the police officer revoked his request for an ambulance. Lazarou said there was no incident when police were present and the student did not come to any harm.
In a statement to CBC, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) said that on Wednesday, when the Rosemont 911 call occurred, Regina EMS was fully staffed with 11 ambulances. However, EMS experienced a period of higher than normal call volumes, SHA said, responding to 135 calls for service that day. According to the SHA, the daily average from the previous year was 95 calls.
Jalloh said packed emergency rooms lead to EMS workers having to stay with the person they brought to the ER until they are admitted.
"Every hour that is spent with this patient is an hour that is being delayed for them to respond to any other call," Jalloh said.
He said these issues will be exacerbated by the flu season.
SHA, ministry acknowledge issues
The SHA told CBC in an emailed statement that both it and Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health are aware that there are times where call volumes may exceed anticipated and planned-for staffing levels.
"During these situations, the SHA will assess the situation and call in additional EMS resources and triage calls to ensure ambulances are dispatched to patients requiring urgent care."
Minister of Rural and Remote Health Everett Hindley said the province is trying to incentivize health-care workers, including paramedics, to work in rural Saskatchewan.
"We do have a target within the ministry in rural areas to try to have response times of 30 minutes or less to an EMS call," he said. "I think our most recent statistics from a year or two ago have achieving that about 73 per cent of the time."
CUPE said it has been waiting a long time for government action.
"You know, now that the government started to listen to some of the calls that we have been so concerned about and that we have been raising, [maybe] they will put a serious effort to try to address this situation, because right now it is very scary and dangerous," said Jalloh.
Ambulance and staff shortages are hard on paramedics. Adam Fedrau, secretary treasurer for the Saskatoon Paramedic Association, said many of them work 12-hour shifts with no breaks and are burning out.
"I think a lot of them are struggling right now with with ways to cope with the increased stress and the increased workload," said Fedrau.
"It's really a focus on mental health right now. We're really trying hard to convince paramedics to take care of themselves. The real big things are eating a good diet, like a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep, especially with the shift work."
Fedrau said paramedics are indeed spending too much time in the hallways of ERs right now, and ambulances are sitting in parking lots. He said the Saskatoon Paramedic Association is providing counselling to many workers.
"That didn't used to be as big of an occurrence, but it definitely is now. There's added stress on an already stressful job and a traumatic job, it just does not help."
NDP calls for government action
Meanwhile, the provincial Opposition NDP says it want to see a more robust and immediate plan from the province to deal with the shortages and wait times.
"We've been hearing EMS report this concern for so long due to offload delays. So, not being able to move patients into the emergency room when our emergency rooms are full, transferring patients between communities and between facilities," said Vicki Mowat, NDP critic for health, on Thursday.
"This government promised ambulance reform back in 2008. It's been over 20 years. We have a patchwork system that is not working. It is representing the crisis that we know exists in health care right now, where we do not have adequate access to emergency care, we do not have adequate access to primary care."
Mowat said the shortage of family doctors in Saskatchewan leads to people waiting until their illnesses or injuries become acute and then going to an emergency room or having to call an ambulance.
"It is a symptom of a of a whole system that is in crisis and it's absolutely unacceptable," she said. "I think what we expect that when we call 911 we are going to have an ambulance available."
What the provincial government is doing
The SHA said that over the past two budgets, the provincial government has provided $5.64 million in additional funding for more staffing to help improve response times in Regina, Saskatoon and their surrounding communities.
This includes $3.5 million for an additional three 24/7-staffed ambulances in Saskatoon and $2.14 million for an two 24/7-staffed ambulances in Regina.
"The Ministry of Health and the SHA are working on a multi-year EMS stabilization plan to address staffing issues in a number of rural communities across the province," the SHA said in a statement.
In the province's 2022-23 budget, $7.317 million was provided to support an additional 70.7 full-time equivalent workers in 27 communities across the province.