Twenty-four out of roughly 300 Essex-Windsor EMS workers (EWEMS) are currently off the job and isolating because of COVID exposure. Of those, 16 have tested positive.
"It's unusually high from what I'm aware of versus any other time during the pandemic," said James Jovanovic, president of the Windsor paramedics union, CUPE Local 2974.
"I can't recall a time where it was ever more than between five and 10, and each of those times we saw and experienced that strain [on services]. With any number of staff who are off, we need people to backfill it. Our staff who are already feeling tired and burnt out will be working more, which leads to potentially calling in sick more."
EWEMS Chief Bruce Krauter said, despite the strain on they system, the public has no need to worry. He stressed that ambulances are available to respond to emergency calls.
"Right now we are somewhat stable, meaning that although we did have an uptick, we're relatively level at the 24 [workers off] mark. I'm hoping that within a couple of days that will start to go down. But being cognizant that with Omicron it, it transmits very easily.. so it is concerning. We're keeping our eye on it daily, hourly and trying to combat it so we can ensure that we have ambulances ready to respond when they're needed."
There is a new contingency plan in place to prevent ambulance offload delays. According to Jovanovic, one EWEMS crew will now watch over four patients waiting to get into the hospital, even if they were brought in by other ambulances. Before this, each of those patients would have been cared for by a full crew, taking a whole truck off the road. With this new strategy, there will be three more ambulances available on the road.
24 EMS workers off the job, additional 13 on work isolation
Once EWEMS workers begin isolating at home, they will have to remain off work for 10 days until they are no longer symptomatic. If workers who are isolating do not have any symptoms, they are required to stay home for five days, returning to work only if they continue to have no symptoms and test negative for COVID-19. Once they are back on the job, workers will have to follow a "work isolation" policy.
EWEMS Chief Bruce Krauter said 13 staff members are currently on work isolation.
"They can come into work, wear their surgical mask, social distance and monitor their symptoms. As soon as they get symptoms, they can't work any longer. They have to go home."
Paramedics with natural immunity not necessarily safe against Omicron
Chief Krauter said even with the staffing shortage, it would be too risky to bring back unvaccinated paramedics who now have natural immunity.
In November, four paramedics were placed on unpaid leave for not complying with the vaccine policy for city employees.
Krauter said he's encouraging those members to get vaccinated so they can return to work.
"It absolutely has an impact on the workers who are still on the job to see their colleagues go without pay during Christmas, seeing them be terminated, seeing others contract COVID and go off with illness.." - James Jovanovic, president of Windsor paramedics union, CUPE Local 2974
"We know how fast this [virus] can transmit. We know from the data that people that are unvaccinated may get sick worse, and we're trying to keep the numbers low... So at this point, our numbers are very low on the unvaccinated staff and I'm encouraging them to get vaccinated."
Jovanovic said there could be advantages to being more flexible on the matter.
"If.. we're seeing that current vaccination is not limiting contraction or transmission of COVID, I don't see the justification anymore in not allowing those who have previous exposure and some level of protection to no longer be able to work."
He said bringing back workers with natural immunity once it is determined to be safe could alleviate a lot of pressure currently being felt by paramedics who are still working.
"It absolutely has an impact on the workers who are still on the job to see their colleagues go without pay during Christmas, seeing them be terminated, seeing others contract COVID and go off with illness, or the potential of those who are COVID positive coming back after five days of isolation, whereas previously it was 10 days," he said.
"All of that adds increased stress to those who are already tired, already strained and can who have continued to work throughout this process."