Changes in trauma-related emergency medical services during the COVID-19 lockdown in the Western Cape, South Africa

Abstract Background To limit virus spread during the COVID pandemic, extensive measures were implemented around the world. In South Africa, these restrictions included alcohol and movement restrictions, factors previously linked to injury burden in the country. Consequently, reports from many countries, including South Africa, have shown a reduction in trauma presentations related to these restrictions. However, only few studies and none from Africa focus on the impact of the pandemic restrictions on the Emergency Medical System (EMS). Methods We present a retrospective, observational longitudinal study including data from all ambulance transports of physical trauma cases collected during the period 2019–01-01 and 2021–02-28 from the Western Cape Government EMS in the Western Cape Province, South Africa (87,167 cases). Within this timeframe, the 35-days strictest lockdown level period was compared to a 35-days period prior to the lockdown and to the same 35-days period in 2019. Injury characteristics (intent, mechanism, and severity) and time were studied in detail. Ambulance transport volumes as well as ambulance response and on-scene time before and during the pandemic were compared. Significance between indicated periods was determined using Chi-square test. Results During the strictest lockdown period, presentations of trauma cases declined by > 50%. Ambulance transport volumes decreased for all injury mechanisms and proportions changed. The share of assaults and traffic injuries decreased by 6% and 8%, respectively, while accidental injuries increased by 5%. The proportion of self-inflicted injuries increased by 5%. Studies of injury time showed an increased share of injuries during day shift and a reduction of total injury volume during the weekend during the lockdown. Median response- and on-scene time remained stable in the time-periods studied. Conclusion This is one of the first reports on the influence of COVID-19 related restrictions on EMS, and the first in South Africa. We report a decline in trauma related ambulance transport volumes in the Western Cape Province as well as changes in injury patterns, largely corresponding to previous findings from hospital settings in South Africa. The unchanged response and on-scene times indicate a well-functioning EMS despite pandemic challenges. More studies are needed, especially disaggregating the different restrictions.