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

There were 42 serious emergencies left uncovered across South Australia overnight with some patients waiting more than six hours for an ambulance to arrive, the paramedics union says, as the ambulance service concedes it is “undoubtedly facing unprecedented demand”.

Jan 14, 2022, updated Jan 14, 2022
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

As South Australia grapples with an Omicron outbreak which has seen hundreds hospitalised with COVID-19, the Ambulance Employees Association says at 7.45pm and 9pm last night there were 42 emergencies triaged as priority two – requiring assistance within 16 minutes – for which there was no ambulance to send.

The union also said Thursday marked the 11th straight day the ambulance service has declared an “Opstat White” event, meaning “operational capacity, capability and/or resources are insufficient to maintain effective service delivery for high acuity cases”.

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

“There was an unconscious collapse [patient] who at that point [7:45pm] had already waited four hours,” she said.

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

“I have never seen it this bad.

“The concept of priority twos pending with no ambulance to send for a long period of time had never been an issue until up about a year ago.

“About six months ago it was gobsmacking to hear that it had reached a record 20 cases … and then very quickly we’ve escalated to this situation of 42 cases pending with no ambulance to send.”

A further 48 lower priority callouts were pending at the peak of the demand surge, the union says.

By 11pm, there were still 20 priority two cases pending, according to Watkins, although the ambulance service says the priority two backlog had “reduced significantly” by midnight.

There are also currently 85 staff across the ambulance service who are on leave or furloughed due to COVID-19.

It comes as the ambulance service implements measures to “ration” ambulance crews to one paramedic and one non-emergency ambulance officer – as opposed to two paramedics – in a bid to bolster the agency’s capacity to respond to emergencies.

A spokesperson for the SA Ambulance Service said the agency was “undoubtedly facing unprecedented demand” and “this is a tough time”.

“Once again we received a huge number of triple zero calls yesterday evening,” the spokesperson said.

“But we must be clear to the South Australian public that at all times yesterday, we continued to ensure our most urgent Triple Zero (000) calls were prioritised.

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

The SAAS reiterated its ongoing call to the public to seek alternative care if their situation is not an emergency.

“There are many options available, from an out of hours GP to the Children and Adolescent Virtual Urgent Care Service, COVID information lines and COVID care services,” the spokesperson said.

“Help us to help you and contact SAAS when you need an emergency ambulance; save Triple Zero for when it matters.”

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

He also said the advice from SAAS was that “no [priority one] cases were left pending at all, and the number of [priority 2] cases pending had reduced significantly 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 or moderate symptoms.

“This spike in activity is understood to be related to Rapid Antigen Tests being supplied to thousands of close contacts from yesterday.

“We understand that there is significant COVID anxiety across South Australia at the moment. It is a stressful time for many South Australians but we encourage people to only call 000 if they require emergency care.”

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

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

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