SA ambos facing new ‘disaster measures’ amid increasing COVID numbers, union says

South Australia's ambulance service could resort to new "disaster measures" because the state's health frontline is struggling to cope with the pressures of growing COVID case numbers, a union says. 

Key points:

  • The SA ambulance union says paramedics could be paired with non-emergency ambulance officers
  • It comes after other response measures including the use of student drivers, and police taking patients to hospital
  • The ambulance service says it has "strong plans" in place to meet demand

SA reported more than 3,000 daily cases on Wednesday for the second day running, amid a total of 19,250 active cases, including 125 people in hospital.

But the SA Ambulance Employees Association (AEA) said 13 ambulances were "left unstaffed" across Adelaide and more than 20 staff were unable to come to work.

"We're seeing a lot of staff currently furloughed due to being a close contact, and a lot of staff just simply being sick or burnt out," AEA acting secretary Josh Karpowicz said.

"Unfortunately, some members are testing positive for COVID."

The AEA said, to address the depletion, the South Australian Ambulance Service (SAAS) may start "rationing" paramedics by pairing them "with non-emergency ambulance officers".

"On a normal ambulance there's normally two registered paramedics providing care to a patient in the community," he said.

"What will now happen is that some of our non-emergency ambulance officer workforce … will pair up with a paramedic on an ambulance, an emergency ambulance crew, and respond to emergencies in the community.

"You now no longer have two registered paramedics caring for critically unwell patients – you're splitting that between an ambulance officer and a paramedic.

"These are disaster measures, and they have never been implemented before.

"It's quite concerning we're hitting this level of incapacity so quickly."

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Last week, it was revealed that SAAS had been forced to bolster staff with student drivers, days after it was confirmed that police had, on occasion, been called upon to perform duties usually carried out by ambulance offices, by ferrying patients to hospital.

But SAAS has insisted that it has "strong plans" in place to meet COVID-driven increases in demand, and that recent recruitment meant there were "now more paramedics, ambulances officers and triple-0 call takers in South Australia than ever before".

"Whilst dealing with infectious diseases is part of day-to-day business for SAAS, we know there will be periods where we see a reduction in staff due to isolation and quarantine requirements," a spokesperson said.

"Since the start of the pandemic, SAAS has had strong plans in place to ensure that it is able to respond to increased demand due to COVID-19, as well as being able to respond to day-to-day medical emergencies, even with staff in isolation as anticipated."

Mr Karpowicz said that modelling relied upon to inform planning had not anticipated surges in COVID-19 case numbers "until February".

SAAS said it was now implementing measures in its pandemic response plan, including "post graduate paramedics assisting our existing patient transport officers and those officers providing additional driving duties".

"This is about flexing up our service and ensuring we have even more ambulances on the road, and is a safe and responsible measure," the spokesperson said.

The AEA and SAAS will meet today to discuss the situation.

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