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B.C. firefighters told to put non-life threatening medical calls on back burner amid COVID-19

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Firefighters in B.C. have been directed by the provincial health officer to stop responding to medical emergency calls unless they present an immediate threat to the patient’s life.

Those calls are generally colour-coded “purple” by 9-1-1 dispatchers.

The idea is to limit potential exposure to COVID-19 by first responders without proper gear, according to both health and fire officials.

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But Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services public information officer Jonathan Gormick says the shift in response could have unintended consequences when it comes to people suffering overdoses.

“There may be a gap in this modification of service,” he said. “There’s a proportion of the population that’s going to be disproportionately affected by this.”

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Gormick said 70 to 80 per cent of overdose-related 9-1-1 calls come in colour-coded “red” — the second highest code, meaning “immediately life-threatening or time critical,” according to a fact sheet from B.C. Emergency Health Services.

Langley firefighters in isolation after possible coronavirus exposure
Langley firefighters in isolation after possible coronavirus exposure

Under normal circumstances, fire crews are often the first to respond to those calls in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. During the pandemic, they would only be called out to those calls if paramedics foresee a delay of 20 minutes or more for an ambulance to reach the area.

“I understand the premise of the order restricting it. Partly it’s that we want to limit responder exposure to people who possibly have COVID or COVID-like symptoms, and possibly to preserve some of the personal protective equipment,” Gormick said.

“But like I said, there’s a portion of the population that’s going to probably be drastically impacted by this.”

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Gormick said the colour codes often depend on what the dispatcher is told by the person who calls in, and patients suffering overdoses are likely to go into respiratory arrest within minutes. He said that increases the potential for brain damage and life-threatening injuries.

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The City of Vancouver has seen a spike in overdose deaths amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

City officials said Vancouver police attended eight overdose-suspected deaths last week — the highest since August 2019.

Gormick said there could be a number of reasons for the escalation in overdose-related calls.

Steps the City of Vancouver is taking to help vulnerable residents in DTES
Steps the City of Vancouver is taking to help vulnerable residents in DTES

“Whether it’s the temporary closure of some of the consumption sites, or just general distancing, people distancing to stay safe from virus transfer. But distancing means you’re using alone, and maybe not around naloxone,” he said.

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“These are people that need immediate assistance to stay alive and stay well.”

When asked about the matter at her daily COVID-19 briefing on Saturday, Dr. Bonnie Henry said there are paramedics in close enough proximity to the Downtown Eastside to answer every call in a timely manner.

READ MORE: Vancouver sees spike in overdose deaths amid COVID-19 crisis

“There is also a paramedic station in the Downtown Eastside and response times are being managed right now in a way to try and best protect everybody,” she said.

Gormick described the direction to stop attending medical emergency calls as an “order” — but Henry said that language is not correct.

Global News has reached out to the Ministry of Health for clarification on that matter.

City of Vancouver announce new measures to keep vulnerable DTES residents safe
City of Vancouver announce new measures to keep vulnerable DTES residents safe

Henry said the decision was made after fire crews expressed concerns about possible COVID-19 exposure while attending medical calls.

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“It came out of our discussions at the emergency operation centre, and it reflects, actually, the reality on the ground: that fire services were not wanting to respond to health calls because of concerns about being exposed to COVID-19,” Henry said.

She said this is a step that’s been taken before during other public health emergencies, such as the H1N1 pandemic of 2009.

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“We want to ensure that everybody who’s at the calls that are needed have the personal protective equipment (PPE) that they need,” she said.

Gormick told Global News that PPE is not a specific concern for his department at the moment.

“We’re not in any sort of position where we’re worried about running out right now,” he said.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart calls on federal, provincial government to protect vulnerable residents
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart calls on federal, provincial government to protect vulnerable residents

And while he said firefighters may have a “heightened sense of stress” around any call at the moment because of the pandemic, he said they have experience and training in dealing with medical emergency calls where the patient may be sick.

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“We deal with infectious diseases literally everyday. We’re well prepared to deal with those, we have the equipment — especially now, we have augmented equipment,” Gormick said.

“We have the procedures on how to safely approach, protect ourselves, and decontaminate, and not even bring contaminant back to the fire hall, never mind back home.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic is one of two major health crises in British Columbia today.

Nearly four years ago, the provincial government declared the opioid overdose crisis in B.C. a public health emergency, a declaration that remains in place.

Since then, the City of Vancouver says there have been more than 4,700 overdose-related deaths in B.C., with more than 1,200 in Vancouver itself.