‘It’s a disaster’: NSW paramedics are at breaking point with COVID-19 cases

By Brett Simpson

The ambulance service was starting to see cracks in the health system before the Delta variant really took off — a wave of patients with chronic health conditions becoming more acute because they’d put off their healthcare. Now Delta is here, it’s a disaster for us. 

We start our shift and there are jobs waiting in the queue that are 11 hours old. That’s how we know the shift is going to be unrelenting.

It’s absolutely demoralising. 

These low-acuity jobs could be a broken bone or an elderly person who needs help to get off the floor, and we know if there’s been a delay the job will be harder because it’s distressing for the patient. And anything that’s distressing for the patient is distressing for us. 

We’re running seriously high-acuity patients from one side of the metro to another. Sometimes not everyone is going to make it or get the care they need purely because of that reason.

The new COVID-19 ward at St George Hospital filled up within a day. It had 16 patients in the department waiting for beds to become available, plus another four ambulances waiting to get in. The worst is Westmead Hospital, where the upper limits to offload a patient from the ambulance can be eight hours. 

It’s the middle of winter and the ambulance doors have to be open for ventilation. It’s often pouring rain and you have to wrap patients in blankets to keep warm. You sit there and you listen to the radio with your patients stuck in the car, hearing high-acuity jobs like heart attacks and car accidents come up while the dispatch is begging on the other end to get anyone to attend. 

I had three COVID patients back-to-back the other night, which is stressful because of the hypervigilance you have to have. Some of them are really sick with unbelievably low oxygen levels. You want to provide the best care but you’re cautious because you’re in the ambulance with them for three to four hours and a brush of the face, a ripped gown or a yawn could expose you to the virus. 

NSW paramedics have copped two pay cuts since the pandemic started. Every time we get exposed to COVID we have to go into isolation for two weeks. The government doesn’t pay us penalties during this, which can amount to a third of our salary. Our families are close contacts and have to isolate with us, so it’s a compounding problem. 

Politicians keep saying we’re valued. But the reality is we’re not, and turning up day after day is difficult when they don’t have enough respect for us not to cut our pay. 49 staff have come back from leave early. We need these breaks. 

This isn’t a crisis that will end in October. This is an exponential workload that will be with us well into the next year.

Graduate programs have been paused, and graduates put into assistant positions, meaning they’re not getting the training they need to become certified paramedics.

The government hasn’t given us any modelling, plans or timeline for ambulance worker capacity. We’re lacking hope and confidence. 

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