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2021 was ‘busiest ever’ for Peterborough paramedics with surge in emergency calls

Click to play video: 'Peterborough County-City paramedics had an increase in calls in 2021' Peterborough County-City paramedics had an increase in calls in 2021
Peterborough County-City paramedics responded to over 19,000 emergency calls in 2021, which the service is describing as busiest as ever – Mar 18, 2022

Peterborough County-City Paramedics‘ top official says 2021 was the “busiest” ever for the service with a surge in emergency calls and patient volumes.

During Wednesday’s Peterborough County council meeting, chief of paramedics Randy Mellow presented an extensive report on the service’s operational performance.

Read more: Global News Morning Peterborough: Local paramedics grapple with lengthy offload times

Among the highlights were 19,305 emergency/urgent calls (Code 4 calls) in 2021 — up 13.24 per cent over 2020, which saw 17,048 Code 4 dispatches.

“Last year was certainly far different — we actually saw an increase of 12.68 per cent in volume of calls including standbys,” Mellow told council during a Zoom call.

“That’s a significant increase we have never witnessed before.”

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Mellow noted that on average there has been a 6.3 per increase in calls year over year but the number doubled in 2021.

“It was incredibly busy,” he said. “That means we saw an urgent or life-threatening call every 19 minutes. It’s the busiest we have ever been.”

Over the past five years, the number of paramedic responses in the city and county combined were as follows:

  • 2016: 30,090
  • 2017: 33,171
  • 2018: 33,630
  • 2019: 36,236
  • 2020: 34,112
  • 2021: 38,439

Mellow notes patient call volume saw a slight drop for Code 4 calls in 2020 to 16,074 compared with 16,195 in 2019 (a drop of 0.24 per cent).

However, in 2021, patient volumes jumped to 18,537 — a 15.73 per cent increase.

“A huge jump — becoming significantly more busy,” said Mellow, who noted the “anomaly” appears to be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and was a similar jump with other paramedic services in Ontario as well as many hospital emergency departments.

Mellow noted while the service continues to “far exceed” provincial response time targets both in the city and the county, offload delays at Peterborough Regional Health Centre continue to increase. He noted in 2021 more than 2,600 calls had offload delays of more than 43 minutes.

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“It’s not a PRHC alone issue — it’s a health-care issue, patient-flow and call-volume issue,” said Mellow. “We continue to work with our partners to address the problem. But council needs to know that it continues to rise.”

As for an explanation for the emergency call increase, Mellow says the exact reason(s) remain unclear as all medical calls for general illness, mental health and opioid use have risen across Ontario despite differences in demographics such as age.

“They’re all coming up — you can’t pinpoint a certain type of clinical condition that’s driving (calls) — it’s all types of calls,” he said.

Mellow noted campaigns such as “Is Your Urgency an Emergency” aim to encourage people to think about what medical services they really need before automatically calling 911.

Utilization rate

Mellow also highlighted the service’s utilization rate — the percentage of time ambulances are attending patient calls versus the number of ambulances available.

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The service was approaching 45 per cent in 2021, versus 30 per cent over the previous two years.

“Generally around the 35 per cent utilization rate, if you rise above it, you have risk of not being available to your community,” said Mellow. “So we’re significantly above that.”

Mellow noted that during 2021 the service had approximately 82 hours of zero ambulance availability.

“It’s almost skyrocketing,” he said, and “2022 is getting even busier.”

However, when questioned by Selwyn Township Mayor Andy Mitchell about the “three and a half days” ambulance absence, Mellow reassured that neighbouring ambulance services are always available to assist.

“There’s never a situation in Ontario where there are zero ambulances available — we had none of our resources available so quite often we rely on others and that should be made clear. The closest ones are always coming — there just may be delays.”

Otonabee-South Monaghan Township Mayor Joe Taylor says all of the data Mellow presented speaks for improvements by the province.

“I just don’t know what other solution is out there besides hiring more paramedics and putting more ambulances on the road,” said Taylor. “The data says there’s where we are going — I don’t know when we get there. But in my view, that’s the solution.”

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