‘Never seen it so bad’: Emergency cases left waiting amid ambulance demand surge

There were 42 serious emergencies left across South Australia overnight with some patients waiting more than six hours for an ambulance to arrive, says the paramedic union, as the ambulance service states that it is “unmistakably with unusual demand” .

As South Australia struggles with an Omicron outbreak that has seen hundreds of hospitals deal with COVID-19, the Ambulance Employees Association says at 7.45pm and 9pm last night that 42 emergencies were triaged as priority two – needing help are within 16 minutes – for which there was no ambulance to send.

The union also said Thursday marked the 11thth on the same day, the ambulance service declared an event “Opstat White”, which means “operational capacity, capacity and / or resources are not sufficient to maintain effective service for high-intensity cases”.

AEA general secretary Leah Watkins said it was “the worst night we have ever had on record”.

“There was an unconscious collapse [patient] which at that time [7:45pm] had been waiting for four hours, “she said.

“There was a patient with heart problems who waited 5.5 hours, and a priority two fall cases who waited six and a half hours.

“I’ve never seen it this bad before.

“The concept of priority two in waiting without sending an ambulance for a long period of time had never been an issue until about a year ago.

“About six months ago, it was gobsmacking to hear that it had reached a record 20 cases … and then we very quickly escalated to this situation of 42 cases pending without sending an ambulance.”

A further 48 lower-priority callouts were awaited at the height of the increase in demand, the union said.

By 11pm, there were still 20 priority two cases pending, according to Watkins, though the ambulance service says the delay of priority two was “reduced” by midnight.

There are also currently 85 employees in the ambulance service who are on leave or have been laid off due to COVID-19.

This is because the ambulance service is implementing measures to “ration” ambulance crews to one paramedic and one non-emergency ambulance officer – as opposed to two paramedics – in a bid to strengthen the agency’s capacity to respond to emergencies.

A spokesman for the SA Ambulance Service said the agency was “unmistakable for unusual question” and “this is a difficult time”.

“We received a large number of triple zero calls again yesterday,” the spokesman said.

“But we need to be clear to the South Australian public that we have assured at all times yesterday that our most urgent Triple Zero (000) calls have been given priority.

“We certainly do not choose not to respond to cases that require an ambulance, but those who are less serious or less urgent will experience delays.”

The SAAS reiterates its ongoing call to the public to seek alternative care when their situation is not urgent.

“There are many options available, from a GP outside of hours to the Virtual Urgent Care Service for Children and Adolescents, COVID information lines and COVID care services,” the spokesman said.

“Help us help you and contact SAAS if you need an emergency ambulance; save Triple Zero for when it’s needed.

Health Minister Stephen Wade said today that the overnight stay “had nothing to do with ambulances on the ramp, and everything to do with a significant number of 000 calls received”.

He also said that SAAS’s advice was that “no [priority one] cases were left pending at all, and the number [priority 2] pending cases were significantly reduced by midnight.

“Ambulance ramping last night was at the lower level of what we have seen in recent months,” he said.

“A significant number of banked calls last night were COVID-positive people with mild to moderate symptoms.

“This peak in activity is understood to be related to Rapid Antigen Tests being delivered to thousands of close contacts yesterday.

“We understand that there is currently significant COVID fear in South Australia. It is a stressful time for many South Australians, but we encourage people to call only 000 when they need emergency care.

The Minister of Health pointed to the COVID-19 Response Care Team hotline on 1800 272 872 as a suitable alternative for those who have contracted the virus and need health support.

“The Response Care Team is understandably in high demand right now, so we encourage people to be patient,” Wade said.

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