COVID-19’s 4th wave fatigue becoming a factor for Alberta’s STARS Air Ambulance crews

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As COVID-19‘s fourth wave continues to weigh heavy on Alberta’s health-care system, STARS Air Ambulance is also seeing a spike in the transfer of patients to and from hospitals facing issues with ICU capacity.

From Sept. 1 to Sept. 22, STARS said it transported 255 patients, 51 of whom were confirmed to have COVID-19 or were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. It accounts for 20 per cent of STARS’ mission volume — a huge leap from the 11 COVID-19-positive patients transferred in the same period of time last year.

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The increase has added complexity for crews on board. They wear masks, goggles and a gown when transferring COVID-19 patients, and the helicopter undergoes a thorough disinfecting process post-mission. Many of the patients also need intensive care.

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“The longer this goes on, we’re starting to see symptoms of fatigue,” said chief operating officer for STARS Air Ambulance Mike Lamacchia. “This is a tiring job, and the patients that we’re transporting right now are really sick, so it takes a lot of mental and physical energy to look after these patients.”

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Front-line managers are checking in with crew members daily to make sure they’re OK.

“If they’re not OK, we give them a timeout and make sure they have the proper rest period to take on the next patient,” said Lamacchia.

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The health authority directs STARS where to transfer patients. With ICU capacity constantly changing, STARS has been flying a lot more missions to hospitals that aren’t typically in their circuit.

“Traditionally, we leave the city and we come back to the city,” said Lamacchia. “We won’t transport necessarily to Calgary because of the ICU bed capacity. We might be going to Lethbridge, we might be going to Red Deer, we might be going to other centres where there’s room.

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“ICU bed capacity changes on a daily basis, so we need to be responsive to that.”

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