A few central Albertans will be facing the uncertainty, and possibly the pain, of having to wait longer for surgery.
Alberta Health Services said Thursday a minimal number of elective, non-urgent procedures will be postponed at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre to help create additional acute care capacity.
“At this time, 12 procedures have been postponed between Jan. 4 to 8 and patients have been notified directly,” said Alberta Health Services in a statement.
“We may need to postpone additional surgeries as needed to ensure we have the necessary acute care capacity, but those decisions have not been finalized and will be shared publicly as well as directly with patients as they are made.”
Elsewhere in the province, Edmonton and the surrounding area have already seen about 60 per cent of non-urgent surgeries put on hold during the second COVID wave. Diagnostic imaging and other clinical support services were also cut by up to 40 per cent.
Red Deer orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Wolstenholme said the delays are due to the availability of beds and the number of COVID patients in ICU and regular hospital beds.
“That means less resources for scheduled surgery patients. Unfortunately that’s what we’re facing right now,” Wolstenholme said.
AHS said 41 COVID-19 positive patients were in care at the hospital as of Wednesday, including 10 in the Intensive Care Unit.
The ICU has 12 beds, with another six specialized ICU beds in the Coronary Care Unit. The number of ICU beds can be increased as needed.
Two hospital units are currently dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, and two other units are under a watch, says AHS.
Temporary measures have been implemented on those units, and both are temporarily closed to new admissions of non-COVID-19 patients. Visitors are restricted to these units.
AHS said the Red Deer hospital is open and safe to all patients needing care. AHS has worked to ensure that there is available acute capacity for anyone needing care.
The hospital continues to work with rural sites in AHS’s central zone to support transferring those patients who don’t require the specialized acute care Red Deer provides, to an alternative setting to continue their care.
“We have been working to discharge patients who can safely return home with Home Care or family supports in place, or to transfer patients to other sites within the zone if necessary while they wait for placement in continuing care,” AHS said.
Wolstenholme said Red Deer is now seeing a lot of its emergency surgeries coming from other hospitals, or long-term care facilities, with COVID outbreaks in the area.
“That means you have to treat those patients with extra precautions and everything just takes a lot longer. Our efficiency has dropped significantly. It’s not from anyone’s fault, it’s just that we’re facing all these patients who are under COVID precautions,” Wolstenholme said.
Ensuring there’s enough nurses for COVID patients can also be difficult, he said.
“If you have any exposure, then staff have to isolate afterwards. I think we’re facing pretty significant staffing challenges.”
During the first wave, 800 surgeries in central zone, and 7,500 province-wide, were postponed. The surgeon said since spring the provincial government has wanted hospitals to increase surgeries to eliminate that backlog, but Red Deer doesn’t have the beds.
“If you want to work later in the day, that’s great. But you still need beds to put those people in afterwards. Beds are a scarce resource we didn’t have before COVID hit. We’ve already maximized the amount that we’re able to do.”
Red Deer was advocating for hospital expansion prior to the pandemic. Construction is expected to begin in fall 2021 and Wolstenholme said he looked forward to seeing the plan to expand surgical volume.
“I haven’t seen a central zone plan yet that would realistically allow us to dig out of our backlog.”
Wolstenholme said as far as he knew, there was no plan for a field hospital to move patients to free up hospital beds during the pandemic.
A field hospital outside the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary was created for extra physical distancing for treatment of emergency care patients.
In Edmonton, a field hospital at the Universiade Pavilion, often called the Butterdome, is for non-critical patients and patients who are recovering from COVID-19.
Wolstenholme asks central Albertans to follow the rules in place to reduce the spread of COVID.
“For a long time we felt a little bit like we were getting through this with less damage than other zones because we had low case volumes to start with. It’s starting to hit home for central zone.”
AHS said eligible staff in Red Deer, including at the hospital, continue to be contacted to attend vaccination appointments, which began earlier in December. Alberta Health Services is providing COVID-19 vaccinations to phased populations during the vaccine rollout.
Details on the phases is available at Alberta Health website.
— with files from The Canadian Press