South Australian public hospitals are under strain with the health department boss declaring a system-wide internal emergency due to many staff being sick with COVID.

SA Health chief executive Robyn Lawrence called a code yellow on Thursday afternoon, opening all available beds and paused almost all elective surgeries in metropolitan and regional public hospitals.

In a statement, Dr Lawrence said the decision was made due to “significant demand” this week.

All Adelaide metropolitan emergency departments were operating at code white, which means they were over-capacity, earlier on Thursday.

At 4:30pm on Thursday, patients at Modbury Hospital’s emergency department faced an average wait time of more than three hours, while Flinders Medical Centre patients waited more than 2.5 hours on average for a bed.

Dr Lawrence said around 270 staff in metropolitan hospitals were currently off sick with COVID and more than 140 patients were in hospital with COVID and flu.

Modbury Hospital emergency department had average patient wait times of more than three hours on Thursday afternoon.(ABC News: Tony Hill)

“To manage the demand, our local hospital networks have opened all available hospital beds, maximised out of hospital care options and paused all elective surgery except Category 1 and Paediatric urgent Category 2 in metropolitan and country hospitals,” Dr Lawrence said.

“Many hospitals are also being impacted by the large amount of respiratory illness in our community, in particular COVID and flu, which is also creating staff shortages.”

SA Salaried Medical Officers Association’s Bernadette Mulholland told ABC Radio Adelaide Drive program hospital staff are trying to cope with the demand but the community is expected to face long waits in emergency departments.

“We know the government is trying to turn it around, but this is turning around the Titanic of our health system,” Ms Mulholland said. 

“And we’re going to go through some pain. We’re seeing a reduction in elective surgery as a response.

“We know our intensive care units are full.”

At this stage it is unclear how long the measure will be in place for and an SA Health spokesperson refused to provide further details about the internal emergency.