Rising Covid-19 tsunami affecting Eastern Cape paramedics

A crew of a private ambulance service in Port Elizabeth wear personal protective equipment (PPE) on July 11 2020 ahead of checking on a patient affected by COVID-19 coronavirus at her home. Picture: AFP/MARCO LONGARI
A crew of a private ambulance service in Port Elizabeth wear personal protective equipment (PPE) on July 11 2020 ahead of checking on a patient affected by COVID-19 coronavirus at her home. Picture: AFP/MARCO LONGARI

A loud beep rang through an ambulance dispatch room in Port Elizabeth, as yet another caller in one of SA’s coronavirus hotspots begged for help for shortness of breath.

“A minimum of 70% of our work in the past two weeks has been Covid related,” said Dave Gardner, head of Gardmed, the largest ambulance company in the Eastern Cape. 

Ambulance services in the badly hit city are facing a rising tsunami of demand.

They find it harder every day to send suspected coronavirus patients to hospitals crippled by staff shortages and lack of beds.

“They can’t take them, so we are sitting with them in our ambulances,” Gardner told AFP.

“The longest we have waited is four hours,” he said. “A couple of times in that situation the patient has said: ‘No, take me home’.”

The Eastern Cape has recorded about 18% of SA’s more than 300,000 coronavirus cases, making it the country’s third-worst affected province.

“The hospitals don’t even have space to take serious patients,” said Gardmed road operations manager Eugene Muller.

“They are understaffed. So they would rather keep the patient with us. At least in our ambulances they are getting care.”

Dead at the scene 

Bleary-eyed at the end of a night shift, paramedic Jeanine Jackson said she had declared three patients dead on the scene two days before. All had called for help with shortness of breath.

“Usually by the time you get there you can at least assist with ventilation,” she said. “But now, no, you get there and the person has already passed.”

Health workers in Port Elizabeth say the city’s hospitals are swamped. The pandemic has overwhelmed facilities that were already under equipped and under resourced.

Acting mayor Thsonono Buyeye acknowledged hospitals were “running out of beds”.

“We are trying to find as to how best we can deal with such an issue,” he said. A 1,500-bed field hospital sponsored by Volkswagen still contained “very low numbers of patients”.

“Maybe they [hospitals] should look into how best they can use such facilities, because it is there for a purpose.”

Existing facilities

Premier Oscar Mabuyane has vowed to build a 500-bed field hospital in every district and municipal area.

But doctors say there are not enough medical personnel to staff existing facilities.

For Muller, who has been working as a paramedic for many years, the situation in public hospitals has never been “this bad”.

“It's horrible inside,” he said. “My guys are emotionally wrecked ... they are literally taking bodies off beds to clear space for new patients.”

Muller described bodies “piling up” on the floor in the city’s two main Covid-designated hospitals, as mortuaries struggled to deal with the surge in deaths.

About 16% of SA’s more than 4,000 coronavirus fatalities have been reported in the province.

“The public are not getting informed and seeing the stuff that’s happening in there,” Muller said.

“They are struggling to pump the bodies out quickly enough to different funeral homes. Never in my career have I moved bodies around to get patients onto beds.”

Government authorities have consistently denied media access to coronavirus wards, citing patient confidentiality and safety reasons.

“We don’t want a situation where people get infected in hospital,” said Eastern Cape health spokesperson Siyanda Manana.

Manana said some mortuaries were “full” last week, but most of the backlog had been sorted out.

The state has so far provided only two ambulances and two buses for Covid-19 patients in and around Port Elizabeth. - AFP


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