People calling for an ambulance in Victoria have been waiting up to 39 minutes on the phone, the Victorian Ambulance Union says, with aged care staff resorting to calling police for help to transport residents to hospital.
Union secretary Danny Hill described the situation as “becoming catastrophic”.
“We’ve had cases just in the past 48 hours where we’re aware of patients making their own way to hospital, and of aged care facilities calling for an ambulance and then not able to get a response, so they give up and call police,” said Hill, who is fully vaccinated and quarantining after contracting Covid.
“We’ve had callers waiting up to 39 minutes. That’s the longest we’ve ever heard of before.”
Covid-19 cases in hospital are below modelling projections, with 738 Covid-19 cases in hospital including 130 in intensive care.
But Hill said there were multiple other pressures on the system including staff burnout, thunderstorm asthma cases on Thursday night, unwell elderly people, and accidents due to wild weather.
He said people who had delayed non-critical hospital care were also now seeking treatment, adding to hospital pressures.
“There are enormous delays once ambulances get to hospitals, and the hospital staff and the paramedics are all doing their best to offload their patients,” Hill said. “But we are now seeing in some regional areas, for example at Latrobe Regional hospital, that there is suddenly a lot more pressure.”
He said regional hospitals had not experienced such an influx of Covid patients until more recently.
“Our members are reporting to us that there’s a lack of facilities, a lack of social distancing, and they feel further exposed even once they’re on the hospital grounds.”
Latrobe Regional hospital chief executive, Don McRae, said the hospital was experiencing significant demand for general medical and specialist services even prior to becoming a Covid-19 streaming hospital for the Gippsland region.
“It is well documented Gippsland has a high incidence of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses and cancer,” he said. “About 42,000 people present to Latrobe Regional hospital’s emergency department each year and 174,000 are treated at the hospital, overall.
“The local Covid-19 outbreak has shifted [the hospital’s] focus to patients requiring high-level respiratory care which is an intensive undertaking for staff and places great demand on resources.”
The hospital had made a difficult decision to postpone non-urgent elective surgery until at least 8 November, he said, in light of increasing Covid-19 positive numbers in the community.
There are more than 700 active Covid-19 cases in Gippsland, with four positive patients in the hospital’s respiratory inpatient unit and two in intensive care.
It comes as the annual report from the state’s department of health, tabled to parliament on Thursday, said that in 2020-21, 68% of emergency department patients were treated within the clinically recommended time, compared with 73.4% in 2019-20.
The proportion of emergency incidents responded to within 15 minutes by ambulance crews in 2020-21 was 82.5%, well short of the 90% benchmark.
“Ambulance performance has been significantly impacted by Covid-19, with increased demand on health service emergency departments statewide placing additional pressure on offload times,” the report said.
“Overall demand for ambulance services has been substantially above previous years, despite a number of periods of reduced activity throughout the year as part of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The annual report from the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA), also tabled on Thursday, said: “A sustained increase in community demand for ambulance services after the easing of Covid-19 restrictions contributed significantly to a decline in ESTA’s ambulance call-answer speed and time-to-dispatch key performance measures.”
ESTA answered 87.7% of state-wide emergency calls within five seconds in 2020-21, below the metropolitan benchmark of 90%. “The months from December 2020 to June 2021 have all been below target,” the report said. “The cause of this diminished performance has been a near 15% growth in call volume from the second half of 2020 to the first half of 2021.”