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Twenty Paramedics Sent Home (Canada)

Jordan Press

The number of paramedics in the city is down dramatically after approximately 20 were sent home without pay for not having obtained a flu shot.

The move has forced management to take over for those taken off duty; part-time workers have been called in; and remaining full-time workers are being offered more overtime to compensate for the loss of bodies. "And they've already had problems staffing the vehicles," said Terry Baker, president of OPSEU Local 462, which represents about 120 paramedics in the area.

"The scenario it creates is it could .limit the amount of vehicles needed for emergency coverage." The County of Frontenac, which oversees ambulance operations for this region keeps nine vehicles on the road during the day and five at night.

Each ambulance has two paramedics assigned to it. There are 62 full-time paramedics and about 40 part-time staff. There are also 22 volunteers on Wolfe Island. Paramedics who didn't get a flu shot were sent home without pay after thepublic health unit declared an influenza outbreak last week.

On Thursday, Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington Public Health declared an influenza outbreak at Providence Continuing Care Centre's Mental HealthServices site. At last count, there were three linked cases of the flu, said medical officer of health Dr. Ian Gemmill. The outbreak was the first of the season and the first declared outbreak in recent years.

"We've been very lucky. We had two years of no declared outbreaks inKingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington," said Paul Charbonneau, the county's chief of paramedic services. Paramedics were given three options: get the flu shot, take an antiviral such as Tamiflu, or stay home for the duration of the outbreak without pay. "So those options were presented," Charbonneau said. "What choices they decided to make I can't discuss."

Some paramedics don't take the flu shot because they are allergic to it, Baker said. There are also concerns about taking Tamiflu because of potential side-effects from the antiviral drug, he said. "And the drug plan will not cover it. The employee would have to pay for the medication on their own." At first, four paramedics from the day shift were sent home and two from the night shift were told to not come to work, Baker said. More were sent homeover the ensuing days.

By law, paramedics don't have to get the flu shot. In 2002, the province pushed for legislation that would have forced personnel to get the flu shot, but backed down after a strong union response. Instead, wording was put in place that didn't require a flu shot, but required some action in the event an influenza outbreak was declared. No other medical profession is required to have a flu shot, Baker said. Local paramedics are upset over the situation, he said, adding the union is prepared to take action next year to make its point. "What we have come to the conclusion on is that next fall no paramedic get the flu shot, period. And then what's management going to do?" Baker said.

"We all entered the job to take care of the sick, ill and injured, but at some point you've got to make a stand." Gemmill said all medical professionals should get the flu shot for health and legal reasons. "This is the ambulance policy and we support them 100 per cent," Gemmill said.

Lawmakers erred when they singled out paramedics for mandatory vaccinations five years ago, Gemmill said. The vaccine is safe and helps prevent spread of the disease, he said. Lastweek, workers from the public health unit spoke with paramedics about the shot, Gemmill said. He said he, too, has problems with Tamiflu, but not the same ones as the union. The antiviral drug shouldn't be used in lieu of the flu shot, but tocontrol outbreaks, he said. Using it otherwise would encourage resistance, Gemmill said.

The situation also comes as the county and the union representing paramedics are close to ratifying a new contract - the first one for emergency workers in three years. Members of OPSEU Local 462 have been without a contract since the province downloaded ambulance service to the county three years ago. On the weekend, the two sides met from 8 a.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. yesterday to reach an agreement. The union wanted wording in place regarding flu shots and influenza outbreaks. Nothing, however, was resolved on that point, Baker said.

Nonetheless, Baker said the union's bargaining unit will recommend the deal to members at a general meeting next month.