THUNDER BAY — Paramedics assigned to the Superior North EMS COVID-19 task force are being overwhelmed by the demand for in-home COVID-19 tests for children.
"Referrals are coming in by the hundreds. They're coming in faster than we can put them out," says task force commander Shane Muir.
He's concerned some members of the team are on the verge of burning out, "because you can see at the end of the day they are just wiped."
Paramedics assigned to the task force are responsible for visiting homes to swab children under 13 years old.
Superior North EMS receives referrals through the assessment centre at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.
Muir said the children all have what are considered potential symptoms of COVID-19, so are designated as priority cases.
Since school began, the number of referrals has skyrocketed.
Provincial guidelines require that students with symptoms such as a runny nose, or who are sneezing, cannot attend school until it's determined they are virus-free. That requires either a negative COVID-19 test, or waiting 14 days at home.
"Even with increasing our capacity [for testing] at least 10-to-20-fold, we are still not able to keep up," Muir said. "We weren't anticipating the volume that would come in. We knew there was going to be a pickup, but it's blown away even our top expectations."
Paramedics are performing well over 200 tests a day, but it's still not enough to keep pace with the growth of the waiting list.
Muir said the backlog on Wednesday was approaching 1,000 children.
The task force is considering innovative ways to deal with the crushing workload.
One option is to open drive-through test centres. Although potential locations have been identified, arrangements haven't been finalized yet.
Muir said the Local Health Integration Network is providing some administrative support "so we're able to free up paramedics to do more swabbing."
Superior North EMS is also looking to hire additional support staff.
In the meantime, he said, paramedics are working through their lunch hours and breaks, and working extended hours, to get as many children tested as possible.
Besides the personnel presently dedicated full-time to the task force, others have been called in on overtime as required.
"It's 100 per cent individual effort by paramedics...they've really stepped up and have been doing an amazing job," Muir said.
He said the workload of the COVID-19 task force is not affecting the ability of Superior North EMS to fulfill its prime mandate of responding to 911 calls.