Triple-zero calls drop in Victoria, but paramedics brace for surge

Triple-zero calls drop in Victoria, but paramedics brace for surge

04/19/2020

People are making 30 per cent fewer calls to triple zero since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but about 200 calls each day are from people with COVID-19 symptoms, Ambulance Victoria says.

Mick Stephenson, Ambulance Victoria's executive director of clinical operations, said triple-zero calls had dropped from 1800 to 2000 a day to between 1300 and 1400 daily in recent weeks.

But paramedics were being called to about 200 patients a day who are thought to be COVID-19 positive, he said.

"Of course, the large majority aren't, but at the time of the call they're identified as suspicious of being COVID-19 positive," Professor Stephenson said.

Ambulance Victoria is attending about 200 calls a day for people claiming COVID-19 symptomsCredit:Paul Rovere

The state-of-emergency regulations forcing people to stay home and restrict their movements could be one of the reasons for the decline in emergency calls. But healthcare professionals also fear more people are trying to avoid going to hospital during the pandemic.

The Alfred hospital's head of trauma anaesthesia, Associate Professor John Moloney, told The Age last week that presentations had halved. Professor Moloney was concerned those suffering acute medical events, such as heart attacks, were delaying seeking help.

“The message we really need to get out to the public is that we have the capacity to look after sick people and they are not over-burdening us,” Professor Moloney said.

“There is a perception that we are drowning in work, but right now, there have never been more empty intensive care beds in Victoria."

Despite the drop in triple zero calls, Professor Stephenson said Ambulance Victoria was still "planning for the worst" in the event the number of COVID-19 infections spike in coming months.

Though no paramedic in Victoria has tested positive, the agency had contingency plans in place in the event 20 and 40 per cent of its workforce is off sick with the virus.

“You only need to look at the likes of New York and London to know what demand looks like in the extreme,” he said.

“This is about being prepared and we hope this plan never needs to be enacted and if Victorians continue to stay at home, continue to follow the social distancing rules then this will probably be a plan we’ll never need to enact in its fullest.”

Graduate paramedics fast-tracked to help the state's response will begin work in a fortnight. The 120 student paramedics would ordinarily go on the road next year, but half will be on the road in two weeks and the others soon after.

Professor Stephenson said Ambulance Victoria may also call on lifesavers and St John Ambulance volunteers to help them out. Volunteers could be given duties such as driving ambulances to less- urgent calls for help.

Retired paramedics have also offered to come back to the job.

“Retired health professionals spent their lives giving to others and this is probably Victoria’s greatest hour of need,” Professor Stephenson said.

“We’re very grateful and if we need, we’ll take up the offer.”

Attorney-General Jill Hennessy said there was already “great volunteer reserve capacity” in the ambulance system.

She said lifesavers and firefighters with CPR training were already being alerted through a mobile phone app if somebody was suffering a cardiac arrest nearby.

“And that’s demonstrated to have absolutely saved lives where time is critical,” she said.

Ms Hennessy said good progress was being made in trying to flatten the curve in Victoria but the government was conscious of “break-out surges”.

“We’ve got to make sure we’ve got every form of capacity ready, able and willing to help out if required,” she said.

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