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Pandemic continues to delay elective surgeries at regional hospital

Waitlist of elective surgeries has grown by about a third to 5,500 during pandemic, hospital says.
TBRHSC winter

THUNDER BAY – Thunder Bay's regional hospital says the ongoing impacts of the pandemic mean it's still unable to significantly ramp up elective surgeries, despite a recent drop in COVID-19 admissions.

The pandemic is easing, but still compromising the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre’s ability to deliver non-urgent care, said CEO Rhonda Crocker-Ellacott.

That means the hospital is able to make slower progress on a waitlist of elective procedures that has grown to about 5,500 during the pandemic, an increase of about a third.

So-called elective procedures include a broad range of interventions from joint replacements and cataract surgeries to cancer screenings.

“The positive thing we’ve seen over the past week to two weeks is that our average admissions with COVID-19 have come down significantly,” Crocker-Ellacott said in an interview Friday. “There’s a definite movement to more of a plateau with respect to the numbers.”

On Friday, there were 24 patients positive for COVID-19 in hospital, including nine receiving care in the Intensive Care Unit.

The number of infected patients dipped below 30 for the first time since Jan. 21 on Monday, and has stayed under that mark since. It peaked at 52 on Feb. 1, and remained in the 40s and 50s for much of February.

It seems to be a clearly positive trend, Crocker-Ellacott said, but the staffing impacts of the pandemic haven’t eased in the same way.

On Friday, 127 people – about four per cent of the hospital’s workforce – was off due to COVID-19, including those isolating after an exposure.

“In terms of what that means organizationally, we’re still not able to deal with our surgical backlogs,” she said.

The hospital’s surgical activity is at around 50 to 60 per cent of normal, up from about 40 per cent, she said.

That’s creeping toward a 70 per cent provincial target the province set for hospitals when it lifted a directive pausing elective procedures on Feb. 10.

The hospital indicated at the time the resumption of surgeries in Thunder Bay was likely to be slower, as the area lagged the provincial recovery from Omicron. COVID-19 indicators like incidence and test positivity rates remain higher here than the provincial average.

The list of around 5,500 patients waiting in the queue for elective procedures has risen significantly during the pandemic, from around 4,000 pre-COVID, said Crocker-Ellacott.

The average wait for an elective surgery has grown to 219 days, “and many, many individuals are waiting much, much longer than that.”

That compares to a pre-COVID average of 187, and a target of 182 days.

It could take a long time to work back toward that target, Crocker-Ellacott said. Health experts have estimated it will take years for the province as a whole to catch up on surgical delays from COVID-19.

“We have a long ways to go, and it’s going to take time for sure to address that significant backlog,” she said. “We’re going to work together with our staff, our physicians, and our patients to do the best that we can. But given our current health human resources situation and the challenges that we face there, the wait time to surgery may not improve in the foreseeable future.”

That comes with a real cost to those impacted, Crocker-Ellacott acknowledged.

“We very much appreciate the hardship on the patients and some of their families, and how difficult it is to wait,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that elective surgeries were “on hold” at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre. In fact, the hospital says it is conducting elective procedures, but at a reduced level. TBNewswatch sincerely apologizes for the error.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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