Most surgeries on hold in N.S. as pressure to health-care system mounts

Click to play video: 'Hundreds of Nova Scotia surgeries cancelled as Omicron surges'
Hundreds of Nova Scotia surgeries cancelled as Omicron surges
Since Omicron hit Nova Scotia in early December, hundreds of people have had their surgeries cancelled. There simply are not enough staff in hospitals to continue with normal schedules and that’s expected to continue for weeks. Only people who need urgent or emergency surgery will go under the knife. Alicia Draus has more. – Jan 13, 2022

As the COVID-19 Omicron variant continues to spread across Nova Scotia, there is mounting pressure on the hospital system.

To help alleviate some of that pressure Nova Scotia Health has announced that hospitals will be reducing surgeries with only urgent and emergent surgeries and time-sensitive cancer surgeries continuing for the time being.

There are three main factors contributing to pressure on the system.

First there’s hospitalizations. In the first two weeks of January the number of people admitted to hospital due to COVID-19 nearly doubled.

On Dec. 31 there were 34 people in hospital. As of Jan. 13 there were 59 Nova Scotians in hospital because of COVID-19 and that number is expected to increase, with hospitalizations routinely rising two weeks after a spike in reported cases.

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The second pressure comes from the dozens of other patients in hospital who have COVID-19, but aren’t in hospital specifically because of the virus.

“That has a pull on resources because no matter what you’re in for if you contract COVID there’s a different protocol,” said Premier Tim Houston.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia hospitals struggling with staff shortages'
Nova Scotia hospitals struggling with staff shortages

According to Nova Scotia Health, the biggest impact on hospital right now lies with staffing shortages. On any given day there are 500-700 health-care workers off work isolating because of being exposed to COVID or contracting the virus. Because of that, patient capacity is maxed out nearly every day.

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“So the priority is to create space for incoming patients who are sick and requiring acute care.”

In December NSH was cancelling about 65 surgeries a week. Over the first week of January 200 surgeries were cancelled. Now only emergency surgeries will take place.

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“We would not be taking this step if we didn’t think we needed that staff to do other things at the moment,” said Nicole Boutilier, vice president of medicine with Nova Scotia Health.

“We have every intention of really closely monitoring and getting surgeries back up as quickly as we can.”

Long-term care facilities also under pressure

Long-term care facilities in the province are also feeling the pressure with staff unable to work due to isolation requirements.

Because of this, 25 of the 133 facilities across the province have stopped admitting new residents. That too is adding to pressure in hospitals as there are 355 beds currently occupied by people waiting for a placement in a long-term care home.

“Unfortunately we started going downhill before we’re going uphill,” said Minister for Seniors and Long-Term Care Barbara Adams.

The Minister who has held the role since the Conservative government came into power in the summer of 2021 says she’s long advocated for more long-term care beds and calls the long wait times “outrageous and unacceptable.”

“Because of COVID we had to shut down a number of beds at Northwood, even places like Oceanview that have three to four to a room, we had to reduce the number of beds,” said Adams.

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“So we started with a negative number.”

The Minister says she hopes to see significant changes within the month as more people get vaccinated and fewer staff members are off on isolation.

Health care workers being redeployed

As the province works to get the Omicron wave under control, health-care workers are being redeployed to areas where they’re needed most.

While those who test positive for the virus must isolate for ten days, in rare instances some may return to work after seven days.

Click to play video: 'U.K. cuts minimum COVID-19 self-isolation period to 5 days'
U.K. cuts minimum COVID-19 self-isolation period to 5 days

“There’s a whole regime they have to follow, it’s really about critical staffing levels where we would implement the work isolation policy,” said Boutilier.

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To help manage, Nova Scotia Health has also put a call out for retired health-care workers to volunteer to return.

More than 2,300 individuals have responded to that call. While the majority are helping out with vaccination efforts, Boutilier says some are being utilized in other ways.

“We’ve been using retired folks for many months throughout the whole COVID response, so they’re distributed through many different areas.”

Despite the ongoing pressures on the system, Boutilier says it is also important for Nova Scotians to know they can still rely on the system when they need help.

“When they need health-care services, especially emergent and acute care services, they need to come,” said Boutilier.

“They need not be worried about anything they’re hearing about capacity or otherwise. The teams are there and are prepared to deal with the impact of the flow.”

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