At points this weekend there were upwards of 50 Toronto ambulances that were out of service at one time while paramedics waited to offload patients at local hospitals, a situation that officials say is increasingly impacting response times in the city.
Toronto Paramedic Services Chief Paul Raftis discussed the issue during a City of Toronto COVID-19 briefing on Monday.
His comments come after Toronto Paramedic Services was forced to issue a so-called “code red” on Saturday night when it was left without a single free ambulance available to respond to calls.
In more typical times around 40 Toronto ambulances are usually available to respond to calls at any point, according to a city spokesperson.
Ambulances from neighbouring jurisdictions can also be asked to respond to high-priority calls when needed.
“It’s really important to know that in-hospital wait times are the most significant factor contributing to the system pressures and it’s not uncommon for paramedic teams to wait for hours in all hospitals,” Raftis said on Monday, noting that the delays at local hospitals are likely related to the pandemic. “I really think the prioritization of the paramedics, getting them out of the hospitals, is a critical piece for us and we’re going to continue to work with our hospital partners to do that.”
Union says system is ‘on verge of collapse’
Over the weekend, the paramedic unit chair for CUPE Local 416 that incident like the one that occurred on Saturday night when there were no free ambulances to respond to calls are sadly becoming increasingly “frequent.”
He said that low staffing levels have long been an issue with the Toronto Paramedic Services and with unplanned absences and patient volumes rising amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant the system is now “on the verge of collapse.”
Raftis, however, dismissed that suggestion on Monday.
He said that Toronto Paramedic Services has been able to mitigate an increase in unplanned absences through the use of overtime and having firefighters respond to approximately 60 lower priority calls each day where there is no indication of an injury.
As a result he said that about 114 ambulances were on the job in Toronto on Monday, approaching the typical, pre-pandemic complement of 120.
The ambulance chief did concede that the ability of paramedics to respond to calls is being impacted by the amount of time that some of them are having to spend in hospitals waiting to hand over care of a patient but said that residents who are truly need of urgent care will still be able to access it.
“There’s no question that we’re very busy right now. We’re seeing lots of pressure across the system and these are not normal times so we do run into situations where ambulance availability is low,” he said. “In these cases, higher risk and higher priority cars are always responded to first and lower risk and lower priority calls may be delayed until more ambulances become available.”
Paramedic services across the GTA have previously expressed concerns about a shortage of emergency personnel as COVID-19 cases in the province increase exponentially.
At Monday’s briefing, Mayor John Tory said that the city remains “laser focused on ensuring people in urgent situations know that when they call we will respond.”
“I want to thank the hospitals for working with us to try to help reduce offload delays and get our EMS crews back on the road as quickly as possible. That is a significant part of meeting this challenge,” he said.