Illawarra paramedics are being diverted to Sydney to deal with the worsening COVID-19 crisis, and union delegates have warned it's "a matter of time" before there are fatal consequences.
Health Services Union delegate and Wollongong paramedic Tess Oxley said a combination of high case numbers and COVID-safe procedures meant ambulances and paramedics were being stretched beyond capacity.
On top of that, ambulances are being used as the first port of call for people sick with COVID, who cannot see a GP or ask someone from another household to care for them.
"They're being advised to call us, but we haven't been given extra staff," Ms Oxley said.
"When we transport them, there's a significant wait to drop them off at hospital, because they need a specialised bed.
"Then we have to decontaminate the ambulance for the next patient.
"This all takes time - and that means someone will have to wait longer to receive life-saving treatment."
Because of the backlog of COVID patients in hotspot areas such as Western Sydney, Ms Oxley said Illawarra paramedics were being diverted to help manage the load.
Their absence is not being covered.
"It started as regular occurrence five or six weeks ago when Sydney started losing paramedics to self isolation," Ms Oxley said.
"At first we were understanding of that, but since then it's become the go-to measure.
"It's not planned at the beginning of the day, they wait until it's deteriorated and then Illawarra gets called to pick up the jobs.
"It's not just one job anymore, it's an entire shift, and it's going to get worse."
She said one night this week there were only four ambulances left to cover the region between Helensburgh and Ulladulla.
She said there was a significant number of casuals who could be made permanent to ensure shifts were staffed adequately.
NSW Ambulance was asked whether Illawarra ambulances were routinely deployed to Sydney, and what strategies were put in place to cope with the increased workload.
A spokesperson said "the significant majority" of paramedics were fully vaccinated, and they had been fitted for appropriate facemasks.
They did not comment on staffing levels.
"NSW Ambulance paramedics are a mobile workforce and crews are deployed dynamically to areas of high triple zero calls and the closest available paramedic is always deployed to any emergency," the spokesperson said.