‘A flying ICU’: Rural and remote emergency services fly COVID-19 patients to safety

Rural and remote communities have relied on the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS) to help weather the storm of COVID-19 infections over the last year.

At its peak in November, about one in five of STARS’s service calls was related to COVID-19, a spokeswoman said. In its 2020-21 financial year, the service flew 902 missions from Saskatoon and Regina, compared to 884 in the previous year.

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COVID-19 support calls have swelled in the past year, averaging about 10 per cent each month, noted Tracey Steel, director of clinical operations.

The province has put another $1.4 million toward the program this year, bringing its total funding to about $11.8 million, according to the Saskatchewan budget. About $844,000 of this year’s cash comes from a late 2018 funding commitment for fleet renewal, a STARS spokeswoman said.

“Fleet transition is well under way in Saskatchewan with our Saskatoon base operating the H145 model (helicopter),” she wrote in a statement.

Other air support expenses in the budget include the province spending roughly $3.6 million to put a Turbo Commander aircraft in place by 2022. That comes on top of $9.2 million spent to acquire a CL215T Air Tanker that will be delivered in late 2022, marking the third instalment of a four-year commitment.

For rural and remote communities lacking the resources, Steel said STARS is like “a flying ICU” that can relieve local health teams. That work has come with some adjustments in the last year.

“It certainly can be hot and fatiguing, because you’re wearing gloves, gown, mask, eye protection, face shields plus a helmet,” Steel said, noting those extra measures have made the missions longer.

“It’s been very dynamic.”

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