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Halifax first responders preparing for coronavirus pandemic

First responders reassuring public of their COVID-19 preparation
WATCH: Firefighters, police and paramedics are all monitoring the news closely and coming up with contingency plans. Elizabeth McSheffrey has more.

First responders in Halifax are preparing for the province to be hit by the global pandemic of the novel coronavirus.

“It’s just basically the unknown. We don’t really know what to expect yet,” said Michael Nickerson, president of IUOE Local 727, the union representing Nova Scotia paramedics.

“It’s just a matter of time before it does reach us. I mean, we know that it is coming.”

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Nickerson said that while he’s confident the province has preparedness plans well underway, paramedics are concerned about ensuring they’re adequately protected with the proper equipment. They also wonder how they’ll cope with the added strain of a pandemic when they’re already struggling under heavy workloads.

“That’s a concern not even just for the paramedics but health care in general,” he said.

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“Hopefully, it’s not a situation like in Italy where we’re having to choose, you know, who lives and who dies. It sounds kind of fearmongering, but that’s what’s happening in Italy right now… Our health-care system in Nova Scotia is already struggling now.”

READ MORE: NSHA expects increased number of people to test for coronavirus after March break

Nickerson said paramedics are also concerned about how they’ll be paid if they are exposed to COVID-19 and required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“We don’t think that they should go without money, of course, and it shouldn’t come out of their sick time, either,” he said.  

“All we can do is wait and see what happens.”

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Coronavirus outbreak: NSHA encourages people to call 811 before going to assessment centres
Coronavirus outbreak: NSHA encourages people to call 811 before going to assessment centres

In-home testing program to begin next week

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During a briefing on Monday, the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Robert Strang, alluded to the possibility of paramedics doing in-home testing for COVID-19, should it be required. 

Emergency Health Services (EHS) is the privately owned company that manages the province’s ground ambulances.

EHS director of provincial operations Jeff Fraser said the company has been working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority and 811 to create an in-home testing program.

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Four paramedics have already been trained to administer the nasopharyngeal swabs required to test for the virus. Two of those paramedics will work out of a Halifax Regional Municipality-based unit, and two will operate in Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

Fraser expects both units to begin operations sometime next week.

“The province is big, but we really want to put them in the area where the most population is. If you look across the world, a lot of the areas that are starting to have clusters, for the most part, are areas that have high concentrations of population,” he said. 

“That’s where community spread is most likely to occur. It’s not that the rural areas aren’t important, it’s just that we’re trying to focus on the two concentrated populations.”

Coronavirus outbreak: NSHA coordinating with partners on ventilator availability
Coronavirus outbreak: NSHA coordinating with partners on ventilator availability

Fraser said the program might expand if there’s a need.

“The big thing is that at the moment we are heavily involved in preparations, and we’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Fraser said. “That’s kind of what we do and that’s what we need to continue to do.”

To date, EHS has put some paramedics in isolation for two weeks, and while Fraser declined to reveal the exact number, he confirmed it’s under a dozen.

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Twenty Halifax Regional firefighters returning from training in the U.S. state of Georgia on Saturday will also self-isolate as a precaution. 

“It’s not the ideal situation, a lot of us have families that we’re looking to get back to,” said firefighter Joe Triff via Skype from Georgia.

“We’ve been gone almost two weeks now, and another two weeks puts us out towards a month away from our families, so that’s a long time.

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Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services are taking other precautions as well, and say they’re willing to suspend all non-emergency services — including station tours and educational outreach — if the virus impacts their staffing levels. 

“We’re all concerned about the spread of it…We’ve made some adjustments to try and protect ourselves as much as possible and also people that we’re encountering,” said fire captain Brendan Meagher, president of the Halifax Professional Fire Fighters Association.

“We have some protective garments that we brought out back during the SARS scare, and so we’re making sure there’s adequate supplies of protective garments as a barrier between us and the gear we’re using. And if we encounter someone that has symptoms that are consistent [with COVID-19], then we’ll use decontamination procedures immediately.”

READ MORE: NSHA opens coronavirus assessment centres across the province

Halifax Regional Police members are also planning ahead. In an email, spokesperson Const. John MacLeod said they’ve been communicating with employees about health and safety issues related to COVID-19.

“We are also looking at necessary steps in relation to operational impact and measures, should there be a more localized impact,” MacLeod said, adding that police are in regular contact with necessary stakeholders and will “continue to monitor and prepare.” 

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In a March 6 press release, the province’s chief medical officer of health said officials had “well-established plans in place and, as with H1N1, we are actively engaged and working with our partners so we can adapt our response as the situation with the virus evolves.”

With files from Elizabeth McSheffrey