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Sydney hospitals experiencing ‘worst crowding in decades’, treating patients in corridors, ambulance trolleys

From January to the first week in May this year, there were 86 nights where the number of ambulances available to service the whole metro Sydney area at night – covering Bondi to Katoomba – dropped below planned levels. The service was down at least 23 ambulances one evening last month.

“Our supply of resources [are] hopelessly overwhelmed by demand yet again,” a handover email sent by a senior NSW paramedic manager to staff read. “[There are] extensive hospital delays at multiple sites”.

Patients with COVID-19 are presenting to hospitals, taking up beds and increasing pressure on staff.Credit:Bloomberg

One NSW Ambulance manager, who cannot be named because he is not authorised to speak publicly, said paramedics were spending hours waiting outside hospitals including Concord, Prince of Wales, St George and Royal Prince Alfred hospitals.

“Hospitals are running out of beds for people with COVID or suspected COVID cases. Patients are being put at risk because a lack of paramedics means there are no breaks and staff are often working extended shifts.”

Another senior emergency doctor at a western Sydney hospital said wards had reached 110 per cent bed occupancy this week, with about one-third occupied by elderly patients and the emergency department seeing about 220 to 250 patients arriving each day.

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“Nurses are having to get creative at finding spots for patients,” the doctor said. “The system is surviving on goodwill and staff showing initiative. Hospitals are full of elderly people, and people with chronic illness, and we have difficulty discharging them into nursing homes and NDIS”.

At least two patients had waited more than 30 hours in emergency rooms this week before being admitted to wards, the doctor said.

“There are still a lot of COVID-19 patients which tie up emergency departments; people are going out more, there are more injuries and accidents, and we have hospitals desperately trying to catch up on surgery work,” an emergency specialist told the Herald. “All these things are adding up to making things about as bad as they’ve ever been”.

“Thirty per cent of people that come to ED need admission, but they can’t physically move out of the department if there are no beds to go. That’s where the crowding comes in.”

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A spokesperson for NSW Health said that hospitals were experiencing “sustained high demand for emergency care and admissions in public hospitals, along with significant staff unavailability due to COVID-19”.

“All local health districts have well-developed workforce surge and demand management plans in place, and our networked hospital system ensures patients can be transferred or redirected to other hospitals, including private hospitals, where necessary.

“In our emergency departments, our patients are always triaged and seen according to the clinical urgency of their condition,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for NSW Ambulance said current demand was “on top of the normal paramedic workload in the community which has now largely returned to pre-pandemic life, with an increase in car accidents, assaults, falls and other activity related call-outs”.

“NSW Ambulance reviews planned ambulance rosters daily against predicated demand to ensure appropriate resourcing,” the spokesperson said. “Senior operational managers meet twice daily to monitor and manage the demand and adapt the operational response accordingly.”

Skinner said it was important for patients “experiencing a life-threatening or serious conditions to seek care in ED, and we will do our very best to provide the care needed”.

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Krzysztof Stanowicz

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