An EMT undergoes rigorous sanitisation at the Siparia District Health Facility.

As COVID-19 infections continue to spread, Emergency Medical Technicians employed with Global Medical Response of T&T (GMRTT) are calling for better working conditions.

The EMT’s are paid $25 extra for every COVID-19 positive patient they pick up but the non-unionised workers say this is insufficient.

In an interview with Guardian Media, one EMT said they often wait between two to three hours waiting for instructions from the county medical officers of health, before they could do drop-offs at various COVID-facilities.

GMRTT has the contract to provide ambulance service in T&T. It has a fleet of 48 ambulances and a workforce of 330 people.

“When you’re wearing that full PPE, you cannot drink, eat, or use the toilet. Sometimes we stay in that PPE for over eight hours doing an average of four COVID pick-ups daily,” a worker said.

Another EMT said it is not uncommon to face abuse from members of the public who accuse them of taking too long to arrive for pick-ups.

An official said within recent times, several EMT’s from GMRTT have tested positive for COVID-19 while others are in quarantine, putting additional strain on the workforce.

The employees said the current working arrangements were unfair and demotivating.

“This is hard because people have their families in mind and they also have bills. People are worried about how they will pay their bills. If they apply to NIS it will take months before they can get paid,” the source added.

For those who have no choice but to work, it is common for EMTs to work 12-15 hours per day. Overtime is paid and salaries range from $7,000 to $8,000 per month.

“People are under tremendous strain and they are risking their lives and for what? For $25 extra. This is just wrong. EMTs should be given proper health insurance, relief from PAYE and also their full salary if they test positive,” the source added.

In an interview with Guardian Media, chief executive officer of GMRTT Dr Paul Anderson refused to discuss the salaries paid to workers saying, “I am not going to get into matters of compensation on a public forum, other than to say we are 100 per cent compliant with the laws of T&T.”

However, he agreed that EMT’s were under immense strain.

“It’s a tremendous challenge… the rates of infection are higher than it has ever been and consequently the ambulance service is busy,” he said. Asked whether special ambulances are outfitted for COVID pick-ups, Dr Anderson said all GMRTT ambulances are outfitted in a way that is “appropriate for COVID patients.”

Asked to provide statistics on how many workers were infected with COVID as well as how many are now in quarantine, Anderson said, “ I’m not going to reveal anybody’s health information but I wouldn’t characterize it as a lot.”

As to whether there was a manpower shortage, Anderson replied, “We are challenged but I don’t call it a shortage but again this caseload is demanding as it’s ever been in my 15-plus years in Trinidad.”

Asked what was being done to ensure quicker drop-offs, Anderson said space at the facilities were being managed on an hourly basis.

“It’s a challenge but everyone is working with County Medical Officers of Health. The entire system is stressed and rates of occupancy are high. It’s an hour- by- hour thing to manage bed space so we identify where the patient is going before they reach the scene, but there is going to be a problem from time to time,” he added.

Asked what is being done to motivate a stressed workforce, Anderson said, “We are doing what we can to provide relief and comfort. It’s a situation where the entire health system is being stretched. There is no denying that people feel the burden but they are doing a tremendous job.”

He said ambulances belonging to the Regional Health Authorities were probably not equipped and staff are probably not trained to do rescue responses into people’s homes.

He noted that 19 On the Job trainees (OJTs) will be added to the workforce soon and his company was conducting recruitment and developing programmes to reach people who may be interested in doing emergency medical work.

Anderson also urged the public to be patient and understanding and not air their frustration on the hardworking EMTs. He added that the only solution to this crisis was for everyone to be vaccinated and for the rate of infection to go down. —RADHICA DE SILVA