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Manitoba ambulances sitting idle due to staff shortages: Union raising alarm

Paramedics on the scene in Winnipeg. Elisha Dacey/Global News

The union representing 6,500 allied health professionals in Manitoba is sounding the alarm about the number of hours that the province’s ambulances have sat idle.

The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals (MAHCP) says the Medical Transportation Coordination Centre Ground Report shows ambulances were idle — due to staffing shortages — for 17,000 hours alone in October, 2021.

“During the pandemic, rural paramedics have worked unprecedented levels of overtime and continue to do so, but they can’t keep up,” said MAHCP President Bob Moroz in a news release.

“The Manitoba government refuses to address the staffing crisis that is overwhelming rural paramedics.”

Read more: Number of positive COVID-19 tests among health care staff doubles in a week, Shared Health says

Copies of the report provided by the MAHCP show total hours out of service ambulances due to staffing shortages dipped to their lowest point in five years — just under 5,000 hours — in the early months of 2020, just before the pandemic arrived.

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That number climbed dramatically to nearly 18,000 over the next 18 months.

Over in Brandon, Terry Browett, president of the Brandon Firefighter Paramedics, says staff are stretched thin since they’re now responsible for emergencies in some surrounding areas, such as Shilo.

Additionally, much of their time is spent providing non-emergency transfers to other areas like Winnipeg or the Boundary Trails Health Centre.

“We’re having a hard time maintaining the amount of call volumes we’re seeing in the city,” Browett says.

“Over [several] years [we’ve started] to see we don’t have ambulances available in many cases to respond to emergency calls, and that’s becoming a problem.”

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Browett says when he started 25 years ago, they received fewer than 3,000 calls a year.

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Last year, he says the number was closer to 7,000. Yet the city still only has two ambulances.

“Staff are getting burnt out. They can take as much as they can, but eventually they’ve had enough and right now we can’t fill the overtime,” Browett says.

“During the daytime we’re trying to spread the workload out but the call volume in town, with only two primary ambulances, they’re just going non-stop all day.”

The city is in need of a third primary ambulance, Browett said, adding the entire firefighter contingent is dual trained as paramedics, so help will still arrive for those who need it, even if the ambulances are busy.

The out of service numbers highlighted by the MAHCP are spread across the entire province, and are related to factors including long-term vacancies, sickness, fatigue and “other factors,” a Shared Health spokesperson wrote in an email.

Read more: Hospitalizations hit 297, 34 in ICU in Manitoba due to COVID-19

“Staffing of emergency response services has long been a challenge in some parts of the province, with efforts underway to recruit staff to provide 24/7 paramedic coverage in order to reduce Manitoba’s reliance on overtime or on-call staffing.”

That includes boosting recruitment, enabling graduates to enter the workforce sooner, and moving away from depending on overtime and on-call scheduling.

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Shared Health says it is looking at ways to transfer patients in and out of Brandon without relying on ambulances, while bulking up EMS capacity.

Browett says the MAHCP has raised the problems with city management, but has yet to see a solid plan.

“We just want to be part of the solution. We want to sit down with the city and management and health and start looking at these numbers and try to develop some kind of a plan so we know there’s something in the works to address it,” Browett said.

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