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N.S. paramedics call for help after reporting more than 40 ‘Code Critical’ cases in five days

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Nova Scotia paramedics have renewed their ‘Code Critical’ campaign, highlighting systemic health care challenges that result in ambulances being tied up at hospitals or in transit, unable to respond to incoming emergencies. Elizabeth McSheffrey reports – Feb 15, 2021

Nova Scotia’s paramedics are urging government action after highlighting at least 40 instances in five days in which very few, or no crews were available locally to respond in case of emergency.

On Feb. 11, the union representing medics, IUOE Local 727, renewed its ‘Code Critical’ campaign on Twitter, which flags times and locations where fewer than three crews are on the road in their designated shift areas, ready to take calls.

The delays are often due to lengthy patient transfers at the hospital.

Since the campaign re-launch, the union has identified 41 Code Critical instances spread out across every health care zone in the province. About half of them noted “no units” or “no paramedics” in the regions identified, and in the Halifax Regional Municipality, a handful said that outside crews had to drive in as calls started to pile up.

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“It did get a little bit better during wave one of the pandemic, call volume was down, but it has gone back up. The problem never really went away,” said IUOE Local 727 business manager and CEO Michael Nickerson.

“We thought it was important with the new Liberal leader coming in to get the message out there again and let Premier-designate Rankin know that the issue is still there and we need to fix it.”

No one from the province’s health department was available to comment on this story on Monday, and Rankin deferred a request for comment to Emergency Health Services (EHS), the government division that delivers emergency care, including ambulance and helicopter transport and rescue.

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Bud Sanford, senior manager for the EHS Medical Communications Centre, provincial deployment and integrated health programs, assured every single call for care is answered, even though it sometimes take a little longer for paramedics to arrive.

Care begins, he added, as soon as the phone rings with trained professionals on the other line to coach patients through the wait time.

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“It’s a complex issue,” he told Global News. “Over the years, we’ve developed several programs in conjunction with (the province) to help minimize the calls and transports to the hospital, including extended care paramedic programs in the Halifax region… and the community-based paramedic program in Cape Breton region.”

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Ambulance shortages take place due to a combination of factors, but often, said Nickerson, when there’s a delay in transferring patient care. For example, he said paramedics get tied up driving patients from one health-care facility to another, or waiting in hallways until someone in a hospital can assume care of their patient.

Last year, the provincial government purchased three new vans for EHS to provide non-clinical transportation for Nova Scotians between health-care facilities, in order to free up more ambulances on the road.

Those vans, meant for Bridgewater, Kentville and the Central Zone, are expected to be in service next month, said Sanford.

The long-term solution, said Nickerson, is tackling systemic challenges in the health-care system that “trickle down” and tie up paramedics.

“We need to change how we do health care, and I don’t know what that would look like, but we’re willing to work with all stakeholders to figure out what that would look like.”

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Both Nickerson, and Tim Houston, leader of the Nova Scotia PC Party, are calling on the government to release the unredacted ‘Fitch Report,’ a consultant’s report reviewing Nova Scotia’s ambulance system completed by Fitch and Associates in 2019.

The Health Department has previously declined to release it, citing its potential to impact on contract negotiations.

“I believe the solutions are in the Fitch report,” Houston told Global News. “Let’s have an honest discussion about what’s possible…These are common sense, practical issues that there are solutions to, we just need to get to work on them; this going around in circles and watching things deteriorate isn’t helpful.”

According to Emergency Medical Care Inc. (EMCI), the private company that manages and operates Nova Scotia’s ambulances and medical communications centre, there are more than 180 ambulances in the province, which respond to at least 170,000 calls every year.

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