New infectious disease paramedics answering Hamilton’s highest-risk calls amid COVID-19

Jay Lawrence and Tyler Wall loaded an ambulance with specialized gear Sunday morning and headed out into a city gripped by COVID-19, prepared to spend their entire shift answering Hamilton’s highest-risk calls.

The pair are part of a newly created 12-person team of infectious disease paramedics, charged with responding to patients who have screened positive for the novel coronavirus and handling more complicated cases including cardiac arrests.

They volunteered for the job.

“It’s an opportunity to try Hamilton’s first specialty team,” said Wall. “This is the very first truck that’s ever going to roll out. I think it’s going to be interesting to try to be part of it.”

Not everyone is as thrilled about the idea.

“I’m sure my wife isn’t super happy about it,” Wall added. “She’s like, ‘It’s so dangerous’ and I said, ‘We’d go to the call anyway. This is just a chance to have a little extra protection and help your other medics, too.'”

Tyler Wall and Jay Lawrence were the first two Hamilton infectious disease paramedics to hit the street early Sunday morning. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Lawrence and Wall completed a 12-hour training session pulled together by Hamilton EMS superintendent Dave Thomspon while the number of COVID-19 cases in Hamilton ballooned in recent weeks.

The infectious disease paramedics are equipped with powered air purifying respirators (PAPRs) which include full face masks connected by a breathing hose that purifies the air the paramedics are breathing in.

“It looks like a space odyssey,” joked Lawrence.

But even though they look like something from another planet, the paramedics want you to know they come in peace and they’re here to help.

Out in the field they’ll take on a leadership role and act as novel coronavirus experts with an understanding “right down to the cellular level of how we think COVID is attacking people,” explained Thompson.

“These guys are prepared,” he said.

Wall and Lawrence speak with Hamilton Paramedic Service Superintendent Dave Thompson before heading out for their shift. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

That’s important, because unlike other emergency services, they’re fighting an enemy that’s all but invisible.

“The risks are really unseen here, which is a little different than a structure fire or somebody coming at you with a knife or a gun,” said Thompson. “It’s a different sort of danger these guys are exposed to.”

Lawrence wasn’t deterred by the risk. He saw joining the infectious disease team as a chance to build out his skill set and try something new.

In some ways, knowing every call you’re going to could be COVID-19 related means there are fewer unknowns and it’s easier to prepare for, he added.

“Obviously everybody’s worried about it. Everybody’s kind of on edge, but everybody’s still out doing the same things we were two months ago,” said Lawrence. “The virus is a scary thing. But it’s no different than any of the other calls we do.”

Powered air purifying respirators use a breathing tube connected to a full face mask. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

It takes about five minutes to get into the gowns, gloves and eye protection that make up the paramedics’ special kit.

That might not seem like a very long time, but for two people used to grabbing their gear and rushing in to help in an emergency, every second spent getting ready seems to stretch on.

Still, covering yourself from head to toe for every call does offer a sense of security.

“You have to trust your equipment and trust the people you’re working with that you’re not going to put yourselves at any more risk than needed,” said Lawrence.

‘This isn’t the plague’

Like most personal protective equipment, PAPRs are almost impossible to get now, Thompson said.

He said the only reason the service was able to get its hands on enough for the team is because managers were watching what was happening in China and immediately recognized it could come here.

“I think Hamilton is probably the first [place] to actually get it out there on the road. It’s awesome,” said Bev Dunn, commander of operations with the Hamilton Paramedic Service.

Other services have already contacted her to ask about how they can set up infectious disease teams of their own, she added.

What exactly the Hamilton squad’s role looks like will probably change, along with the virus.

Right now one aspect is preparing the public for what the paramedics are going to look like.

“Don’t be alarmed. This isn’t the plague,” said Dunn. “This is just extra protection for ourselves, for the people around us and for our patients.”

The idea of an infectious disease team for Hamilton was actually born during the Ebola scare. In 2014, the city put together a team and outfitted a special ambulance during Ebola as Hamilton Health Sciences was named one of 10 referring hospitals in the province. Dunn said that experience helped them pull together the COVID-19 team and get it on the streets so quickly.

That level of preparation could save lives in the future, too. 

“You change it from Ebola to this, and then on to the next because we know this isn’t going to the last,” said Dunn.

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