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SA 'well placed' to cope with large COVID outbreak despite ramping: Ambo boss

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The outgoing head of the SA Ambulance Service is confident South Australia would be “well placed” to cope with a large COVID outbreak such as that now experienced by New South Wales, despite record ramping outside Adelaide hospitals.

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SA Ambulance Service chief executive officer David Place – who is retiring this week – told a budget and finance committee hearing this morning the service was “constantly looking ahead” and planning for such a scenario.

But the paramedics’ union says SA is “completely unprepared and ill-equipped” and “lives would be at risk”.

Budget and finance committee chair Labor MLC Kyam Maher asked Place if he was worried about what would happen if SA was hit with a COVID outbreak like the one in NSW and whether it kept him “awake at night”.

“I think any ambulance service, any health system would be under stress in that scenario,” Place said.

“We would do the best we have and I’m sure the government would respond.

“I think we are well placed. We have a strong supply of paramedics…”

Asked if he thought the ambulance service was “coping adequately now”, he said: “Most of the time, I would answer ‘yes’, but we have some of these spikes in workload, spikes in ramping and other issues that make it extremely uncomfortable for periods of time.”

“But broadly I think we are responding OK,” he said.

His comments come amid record ramping in South Australia and many examples of patients waiting hours for an ambulance to arrive and then waiting hours, ramped, in the back of ambulances because hospitals are full.

Regarding the possibility of a large COVID outbreak here, Place said “we really don’t know what’s around the corner”.

“What surprised us last year during COVID Phase 1 was our workload actually declined; ramping stopped, workload went down,” he said

“I suspect it was people not willing to engage in the public health system at that point in time because of fear.

“But then we saw it bounce back hard and strong after that.

“We are constantly looking ahead.”

Place said improving hospital flow, paramedic “roster reform”, and diverting patients away from EDs would go a large way to helping reduce the problem of ramping.

Ambulance Employees Association SA acting secretary Josh Karpowicz rejected suggestions SA was “well placed” to cope with a large COVID outbreak.

“We are completely unprepared and ill-equipped to meet even the most basic needs of the community without COVID and without flu – with it would be disastrous and lives would be at risk,” he said.

“Today in Parliament SA Ambulance Service CEO David Place stated that the ambulance service is coping with current demand.

“This is despite David Place stating that every second day this month the Ambulance Service was at Operational Status Red.”

OPSTAT Red is defined as levels of demand “having a potential impact on SAAS ability to deliver safe, quality patient services”.

Karpowicz said that on Saturday night two elderly patients who fell and hit their head waited more than 12 hours for an ambulance to arrive.

“If this is an ambulance service that is coping, it is coping at the expense of our most vulnerable community members,” he said.

Place also told the committee that the cost of removing paramedics’ chalk protest messages from ambulances had so far cost $17,000.

He said SAAS had been forced to make savings to cover the cost because it wasn’t budgeted for.

Treasurer Rob Lucas ordered paramedics to stop writing protest messages about ramping on ambulances, following an agreement to hire an extra 74 paramedics to help address the problem.

Karpowicz said it was “incredibly disappointing” that the government was “funding cleaners to wipe chalk of ambulances rather than focusing on providing South Australians with more ambulances”.

“Our members continue to chalk public safety messages every single day,” he said.

“Ramping continues to deteriorate with the last three months the highest on record.

“In May this year patients were left ramped outside public hospital emergency departments for over 2,800 hours.

“Our ambos are often ramped for over six hours at a time with these patients.”

Karpowicz said the extra 74 paramedics would only result in three additional ambulances for the metropolitan area and none for regional centres.

“The suggestion that shortening ambos’ shifts will improve ramping is a complete fallacy,” he said.

“Shortening ambos’ shifts from 12 to eight hours will do nothing to improve ramping or meet the demands of the community; all it will do is reduce ambulance coverage.”

But Place told the parliamentary committee that reducing 12-hour shifts to 10 and eight hours would help with the problem by minimising time lost when paramedics on 12-hour shifts return to their home base for meal breaks.

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