National study looks at COVID-19 risk among paramedics

When a paramedic responds to an emergency, there’s no way to maintain physical distancing if it means going into a bedroom of someone with COVID-19 or transporting a patient by ambulance.

In those cases, what are the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between someone in distress and a paramedic at work?

At the moment, no one knows for sure.

But Dr. Brian Grunau, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of B.C., hopes a national study he’s heading will find some answers about the risk factors paramedics face on a regular basis.

“What we wanted to do with the study is to get better information on what exactly are the procedures that paramedics do that increases their risk and what are the best personal protective strategies that can be implemented to eliminate or significantly decrease these risks?” he said.

Grunau said the study hopes to enrol up to 5,000 paramedics in B.C. and Ontario, where about 52 per cent of the country’s paramedics are located.

The $2 million study will ask participants to complete surveys and give blood three times over the course of a year.

Grunau is also a scientist at the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences, which is jointly affiliated with UBC and Providence Health Care.

Because the number of participants is so large, scientists will be able to look for patterns and compare paramedics who test positive for COVID-19 with those who are negative to determine whether the difference can be accounted for by variations in procedures.

Does inserting a breathing tube, for example, increase the risk of transmitting COVID-19?

“As we follow these individuals over the year, we’ll see how long these antibodies last and compare people who had vaccine-induced antibodies with people who had antibodies induced from natural infection,” he said.

They’ll be able to see what effect different vaccines have on immune responses and the impact of receiving a second vaccine shot over different time periods.

“This information will be helpful for this pandemic — providing we can get interim results — and helpful for future viral pandemics and our seasonal influenza occurrence which happens every year,” he said.

The study is funded by the federal government through the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. (APBC), said paramedics in the province have been equipped with great personal protective equipment since the provincial COVID-19 emergency was declared last March. What changed is that paramedics began wearing their PPE all the time on every emergency call, which led to, among other things, increased fatigue and stress.

“The risk is really high,” he said. “We’re responding in the highest of risk areas.”

APBC, Local 873 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, represents more than 4,400 paramedics and dispatchers in B.C.

He said no paramedics have died from COVID-19 in the province. He said some have been hospitalized with COVID-19 but he believes, based on anecdotal evidence, that they were mostly the result of community transmission and not from an exposure while working as a paramedic.

He hopes a study like the one being led by Grunau will be able to provide hard data on the COVID-19 risk for paramedics.

“Our job exposes us to multiple different pathogens,” he said. “This will allow significant research into how COVID-19 impacts paramedics and the profession.”