Paramedic who tested positive for Covid-19 and suffered 'horrible' symptoms criticises lack of contact tracing

Ambulance staff clean one of their vehicles outside the Mater Hospital earlier this week. A paramedic who tested positive for Covid-19 has spoken anonymously to The Irish News. Picture by Mal McCann.
Seanín Graham

A PARAMEDIC who tested positive for coronavirus just hours after treating a patient has hit out at the absence of contact tracing in Northern Ireland - and warned crews are walking in "blind" to suspected cases.

The frontline worker contacted The Irish News after it was revealed yesterday that three staff in a Belfast station were diagnosed with Covid-19 but neither colleagues nor patients they had contact with were swabbed due to revised UK guidance.

A further two paramedics based in the north have been confirmed as positive cases, according to sources.

Ambulance chiefs told The Irish News that more than 170 of its staff were absent at the beginning of this week due to coronavirus "related matters" - including those with underlying health conditions or others who are self-isolating due to symptoms. Some may have also relatives self-isolating.

However, there is no official breakdown of the number of ambulance staff who have tested positive.

Speaking anonymously last night, the paramedic said that in the fortnight before being diagnosed, the crew they were part of had been involved in call-outs to around 50 patients.

The virus hit the worker a short time after returning home from a shift, resulting in a rocketing temperature of almost 40 degrees and "two horrible nights" of illness.

"I used paracetamol and got the temperature down but I was amazed at how quickly I became unwell after the first symptoms started," the paramedic said.

"Within an hour, I was curled up in a ball with fever and shivering. Up until that night I had no symptoms at all, even though I would have been infectious. I treated up to 10 patients that day and a lot more in the weeks beforehand.

"It makes no sense to me why the UK government has introduced this policy against contract tracing. You only get tested as a staff member if you are showing symptoms and request one."

While a new test centre opened at the SSE Arena last weekend specifically for healthcare workers, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service has been using stations such as Derriaghy on the outskirts of west Belfast to swab staff and relatives for several weeks.

The paramedic said while this is a welcome move, concerns remained about the level of protective clothing crews were given - and the government guidance around how to use them.

Criticism about the lack of access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for nurses and care home staff has been widespread over the last week. While there is a global shortage, 5 million items has just been delivered and being distributed.

"Paramedics along with care staff are at the frontline, of the frontline, as we are walking blind into people's houses with guidance telling us to only wear the high level FFP3 masks and suits if the patient is Covid positive," they added.

"In fact, the current PPE guidance tells us if the patient has no suspected symptoms we are to just go in our uniforms. Everyone is ignoring that and going in wearing a lower level surgical mask and flimsy apron.

"The government is telling the public to social distance within two metres of someone - yet we're going into peoples homes and treating them directly when they could be carrying the virus or have mild symptoms. It doesn't make sense. Every suspected case should be treated as a positive until it's confirmed - and we should have the right gear for that."

A Northern Ireland Ambulance Service spokesman said earlier this week they were not contact tracing patient, saying: "...(this) practice was suspended as per UK Government guidelines re the change in case definition for Covid 19 and the practice of contact tracing".

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