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Unprecedented plan to ‘ration’ ambo crews amid COVID surge, union says


UPDATED | Ambulance crews will be whittled down to one paramedic and one non-emergency ambulance officer next week under “disaster measures” planned by the SA Ambulance Service to meet a surge in COVID-19 callouts, the paramedics union says.

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With the Omicron variant moving across South Australia and at least 123 people across the state now hospitalised with the virus, the Ambulance Employees Association reported on Wednesday that the ambulance service had declared an “opstat white” event for a third day in a row.

The declaration means that “operational capacity, capability and/or resources are insufficient to maintain effective service delivery for high acuity cases”.

There have been eight such declarations since Christmas, according to the union, which also claims more than 40 emergency shifts have been left vacant this week.

Ambulance Employees Association industrial officer Josh Karpowicz said SAAS was now planning to “ration” ambulance staff under “disaster measures” to account for the surge in demand and limited workforce capacity.

The smaller ambulance crews would carry only one registered paramedic and a non-emergency ambulance officer, with the latter having a reduced clinical scope of practice for emergency patient care, Karpowicz said.

“It will mean that obviously there’ll be more ambulances available and they’ll be able to, hopefully, staff full ambulance shifts,” he said.

“But it puts a significant amount of pressure on that registered paramedic to be the senior clinical lead.

“It’s never been done in metropolitan Adelaide before, and it is part of SAAS’s capacity management plan for disaster care when there’s an earthquake or a major plane crash.

“Now we’re seeing that being planned for the immediate future.

“This is completely unprecedented for metropolitan Adelaide.”

Following a meeting between the union and the SAAS this morning, Karpowicz said the AEA had been advised the new model of crewing would be implemented “within the next week” for a period of eight to 12 weeks.

According to Karpowicz, the non-emergency ambulance officers transferred to the front-line will have their vacated roles replaced by the cohort of university students drafted by the State Government to drive ambulances late last year.

He said SAAS’s workforce had also been hit by positive cases and isolation requirements, putting greater stress on the service.

“We do know there’s a fair amount of staff who are obviously close contacts themselves and aren’t able to come into work, or unfortunately becoming positive themselves,” Karpowicz said.

There are currently 36 SAAS staff in isolation, according to the agency.

Premier Steven Marshall reported today that 308 workers across the whole of SA Health have tested positive, while 573 staff have been furloughed after being deemed close contacts.

Asked today whether he was concerned about the potential ambulance officers would need to split shifts, Marshall said: “Of course everything to do with Omicron concerns me, that’s why we’re meeting with the COVID-ready committee every day.”

“But there’s exactly the same situation in South Australia as around the rest of the country and around the rest of the world,” he told ABC Radio this morning.

“There are more and more workers being furloughed … as of yesterday’s update there were 271 employees across SA Health, which includes South Australian Ambulance Service, who have got COVID.

“That is going to put pressure on our ambulance system, on our health system, on our buses, on our critical areas right across the state.

“But it’s no different from anywhere else, and that’s why we’ve got to take the action that we are taking to slow down the spread of this disease.”

It comes amid other concerns from emergency clinicians about a lack of planning deal with the state’s current Omicron outbreak.

SA Salaried Medical Officers Association past president Dr David Pope told InDaily yesterday that undiagnosed COVID patients are being left sitting in hospital waiting rooms and admitted cases are likely to spill across metropolitan hospitals within days.

The peak body for emergency clinicians, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, also expressed concern last month that the state’s hospitals could become “overrun” due to a lack of planning.

South Australia recorded 3070 new COVID-19 cases overnight, down from the 3493 recorded on Wednesday and 3246 on Tuesday.

Experts believe the state’s COVID caseload is set to peak at more than 6000 cases a day by mid-January, although SA Health is yet to publicly disclose its forecast numbers for the rest of the month.

Karpowicz said the SAAS was anticipating the peak of the state’s COVID hospitalisations to come in February.

“A lot of the planned extreme demand measures weren’t considered to be needed until probably February,” he said.

“At the speed at what the current COVID outbreak has occurred, a lot of those measures have been brought forward quite significantly quicker.”

A spokesperson for the SA Ambulance Service said it has had plans in place “since the start of the pandemic” to combat potential staff shortages and confirmed private providers and postgraduate paramedics would be deployed to free up ambulance officers move to the front-line.

“We know there will be periods where we see a reduction in staff due to community isolation and quarantine requirements. SAAS has proactively recruited additional staff throughout the pandemic to ensure readiness for exactly this,” the spokesperson said.

“There are now more paramedics, ambulances officers and Triple Zero (000) call takers in South Australia than ever before.

“We are also implementing many of the measures within the SAAS Resilience Plan, which includes use of private providers and postgraduate registered paramedics assisting our Patient Transport staff so that those officers can also support experienced paramedics.

“This is about flexing up our service and ensuring we have enough transport ambulances on the road, and having ambulance officers on the road with paramedics is a safe and responsible measure, consistent with day to practice here in South Australia and internationally.

“SAAS strives to ensure ambulance resources are right where they are needed, when they are needed and we thank our dedicated staff for their constant commitment to responding to the community.”

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