Surgeries are once again being reduced in some Alberta hospitals as the health-care system fights back against a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alberta Health Services said Tuesday that scheduled surgeries were being reduced at hospitals in three hard-hit health zones in the province — Calgary, Edmonton and North — as a way of “preparing our health-care system to ensure it can meet demand.”
Scheduled procedures will be reduced by up to 30 per cent over the next two weeks, AHS said in a series of tweets. Non-urgent procedures and ambulatory appointments are also being reduced.
“These changes will allow our hospitals to expand inpatient beds if necessary and create more capacity for COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization,” AHS said.
“It’s important to note that provincially, we have never dipped below 88 per cent of surgical volume throughout the pandemic.”
AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said Wednesday the temporary measures include postponing some non-urgent surgeries that require a hospital stay. The type of surgeries that will go ahead will be limited to cases that require urgent treatment in less than seven days, emergency, trauma and cancer.
Some day surgeries which do not require an overnight hospital stay will be impacted, Williamson said, but AHS will try to avoid postponements as much as possible.
Williamson also noted that services may look different, depending on the site.
The health authority said it still has adequate space for both COVID-19 patients needing to be hospitalized and those needing intensive care.
More ICU spaces were allocated in the Calgary zone last week, as ICUs in the zone reached their peak number of patients so far in the pandemic.
Speaking to Global News on Monday, Dr. Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association Pandemic Response Committee, said hospitalizations and ICU admissions would peak at the end of May if case numbers don’t start to trend down.
Both Calgary and Edmonton have seen high case numbers in recent weeks, with Edmonton reporting 5,672 of the province’s 20,721 active cases on Tuesday and Calgary accounting for 8,656.
Cases in the North zone prompted the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to declare a state of local emergency as cases have been rising out of control in Fort McMurray and the surrounding area.
Alberta also suspended thousands of scheduled surgeries during the second wave of the pandemic, focusing more of its efforts and staff on the then-increasing number of COVID-19 patients needing treatment in hospital.
AHS said any surgeries or procedures that are postponed in the coming weeks will be rebooked as soon as possible, and patients will be contacted by the health authority to be notified of their postponement and subsequent rebooking. Anyone not contacted by AHS is not impacted.
In March 2021, the Alberta government announced a plan to have the surgeries previously postponed during the pandemic completed by 2023, with an aim of performing 55,000 additional scheduled surgeries this year, on top of the 29,000 operations done in a typical year.
The province intended to establish five dedicated surgical units in five Alberta hospitals to accommodate more operations, along with increasing partnerships with chartered surgical facilities. The surgeries were set to get underway at the beginning of April.
In a Wednesday email, Alberta Health said it was “still fully committed to our promise to Albertans, to provide all scheduled surgeries within clinically appropriate times by 2023.”
“The current situation is serious but it’s temporary,” spokesperson Steve Buick said.
“We’ll recover from it and get back on track quickly, as we did after both previous waves of COVID-19.”
Buick said while there’s some uncertainty about how things will go forward, the department is “aiming to eliminate the surgery backlog by the end of this year and bring wait times in line with pre-COVID levels within 12 months, on our way to delivering on our 2023 commitment.”
— With files from Julia Wong and Emily Mertz, Global News