U of T researchers to study paramedics' COVID-19 risk

Toronto paramedics dressed in PPE take a patient out of an ambulance
Researchers from the University of Toronto are working on a large-scale study that examines the risk factors associated with the SARS-CoV-2 among paramedics in B.C. and Ontario (photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty)

When it comes to COVID-19, paramedics are among the front-line workers who are directly in the line of fire. But what, exactly, puts them at such a high risk of exposure has not yet been studied – until now.

Four researchers from the University of Toronto are working on a large-scale study that examines the risk factors associated with SARS-CoV-2 among paramedics. Supported by the federal government's COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, the study will also examine infection rates and immunity measures, accounting for paramedics who have already been vaccinated.

The researchers hope the data collected can be used to develop recommendations aimed at protecting paramedics’ health. 

“The results will help identify factors and protocols that affect the risk of infection among paramedics and provide evidence to inform workplace health and safety guidelines aimed at protecting paramedics from becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2,” says Tracy Kirkham, the study's co-principal investigator and an assistant professor in the Dalla Lana's School of Public Health division of occupational and environmental health.

The research team also includes Paul Demers, a professor in Dalla Lana's division of occupational and environmental health, Sheldon Cheskes, an associate professor in the department of family and community medicine in U of T's Termerty Faculty of Medicine, and Christopher MacDonald, a PhD student at Dalla Lana who is specializing in paramedic research.  

The study is actively recruiting 5,000 paramedics in British Columbia and Ontario. Participants will be asked to complete online surveys and give blood samples three times over a one-year time period. Antibodies will be measured over time even in those with no symptoms, helping reseachers better understand how long immunity lasts.

“This group of essential workers is instrumental to getting Canadians through this pandemic,” says Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer. “The more we can reduce infection among paramedics, the better the emergency response of our health-care system will be. In addition, this study will give us valuable information about the duration of immunity.”

Catherine Hankins, co-chair of the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, says the study will shed light on the risk factors that paramedics encounter in the course of their duties.

“Paramedics treat people who potentially have SARS-CoV-2 infection, providing care in close proximity and transporting patients in confined spaces,” she says. “They routinely provide emergency medical treatments which may put them at higher risk of exposure and infection, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) for cardiac arrest.”

The study is supported by several different organizations in both provinces, including B.C. Children’s Hospital, the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences, B.C. Emergency Health Services, Paramedic Association of Canada, Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., Public Service Health and Safety Association, and unions representing Ontario paramedics.

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