Paramedics are being overwhelmed by calls about bats and non-existent at-home coronavirus testing, and jeopardising response times for critical patients, as the frontline responders prepare for rising numbers of serious COVID-19 cases.
The state’s chief paramedic has issued a plea to the public to only dial triple zero in an emergency, warning ambulances would be under "immense pressure" to reach the mostly life-threatening cases in the midst of a widespread coronavirus outbreak.
NSW Ambulance call centre staff were inundated by more than 200 calls an hour on Friday night - almost 3400 calls over a 24-hour period - busier than New Year's Eve.
Many were callers frightened and anxious about the virus and the radical government restrictions aimed at containing it, as the number of cases surpassed 1000 on Wednesday.
One man called triple zero because: "A bat flew into my window".
"My whole family is scared and worried about the new disease that is out there now and they don't know what we can do about it," the man said.
"... now we can't leave the front house ... my family is just worried about the virus because they don't want to catch it or anything," he said.
The call centre officer assured the man that was not how the virus worked.
"I understand you just wanted to make sure but you're making sure on a line, a triple zero emergency line for people who are dying," she said.
A couple from Hurstville called after they walked past an Asian couple with suitcases and were worried they had been exposed to the virus, and a man called to ask if he should go to work because he thought Sydney was in lockdown.
NSW Ambulance chief Dominic Morgan said he understood the "high level of concern in the community" about the virus, "but we need people to call triple zero for emergencies only."
"We’re getting people calling for an ambulance to test them for COVID in their homes. That is not what [triple zero] is for," Dr Morgan said.
"If you are unwell, ring your GP or call Health Direct … but whatever you do, save triple zero for medical emergencies."
He said the unprecedented increase in calls meant paramedics were dispatching ambulances every 15 seconds.
"We are doing everything in our power to identify and prioritise the most urgent, life-threatening cases," but the barrage of "frivolous calls" meant people with less urgent, but still legitimate reasons to call an ambulance "will wait an awful lot longer", he said.
Paramedics would be "under immense pressure to get to those truly critical emergencies if we get to the point where we have a serious [outbreak] of COVID-19", he said.
NSW Ambulance has been preparing for coronavirus since January and looked to international research to help prepare for the worst-case scenario of widespread community transmission.
The service has introduced temperature testing for staff and paramedics and called in doctors to help triage the call outs for suspected coronavirus cases, from the profoundly unwell to those with mild flu-like symptoms.
Dr Morgan said he was in discussions with other emergency services to coordinate personnel and equipment if the spread of the virus becomes too much for paramedics, including RFS NSW's rotary-wing aircraft and dispatching fire and rescue crew trained in first aid to stay with patients until ambulances can get to them.
"We are trying to do everything in our power to make sure our hospital system is not overwhelmed … we need the public to help us do that," Dr Morgan said.
Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.