Many central Albertans won’t be wheeled into an operating room anytime soon.
Elective surgeries called off as a result of the pandemic will resume “carefully and incrementally,” said Alberta Health Services.
AHS said some scheduled day surgeries will restart in all five zones in May, and patients with the greatest need, and those waiting the longest, will receive care first.
Red Deer orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Wolstenholme said before the pandemic, some central Albertans were already waiting two years for hip and knee replacements.
And during the pandemic, an average of 4,000 elective surgeries per week have been cancelled across the province, he said.
“Add that to our pre-existing backlog, it’s going to take a long, long time to get out of this hole,” Wolstenholme said Friday.
He said AHS may look at expanding after-hours surgeries and bed capacity to accelerate the process.
“But right now, it’s early days. Certainly, from a front-line perspective, we’re not sure what the strategy is going to be to get out of the backlog,” the surgeon said.
AHS said decisions on which procedures will proceed are being made at the zone level, and said AHS will begin contacting those currently on wait lists in the coming days to reschedule surgeries.
The agency said it is confident the need to sustain capacity for the anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients can be balanced safely with the need to care for those requiring surgery.
“We can provide this important care to Albertans while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”
Weekly assessments will be conducted, and AHS said it will adapt as required to maintain adequate resources over and above the requirements for COVID-19.
Wolstenholme said he has been performing urgent and emergency surgeries during the pandemic at Red Deer and Olds hospitals. But this month, procedures such as ACL reconstructions and rotator cuff repairs will be allowed, which do not require hospital stays.
“Things like hip and knee replacements require in-patient beds, so we’re going to have to hold off on that for probably the next four weeks or so. We’ll see as the days roll out.”
He said AHS did the right thing — to be safe, rather than sorry — with its efforts to slow the progression of COVID-19.
“We didn’t know how much capacity we were going to need as far as hospital beds, ICU beds, even medications.
“There have been worldwide shortages of some of the medications used to keep people sedated in ICUs. Those are the same medications used during elective surgery to keep a patient anesthetized.”
He said only recently have more trauma cases arrived at the Red Deer emergency department as weather improved.
“Trauma had picked up, but there was no doubt the pandemic decreased trauma. Trauma centres (around the world) had actually had a significant decrease in their volume.”
Like elsewhere, some people have also opted not to seek medical help at Red Deer’s ER during the pandemic, he said.
“I think people are ignoring some things that they shouldn’t have ignored. I think we need to be pretty clear — if you’re sick, if you’re injured, you should still go to the emergency department, because those problems can get worse if they’re not treated.
“Normally, the emergency department is hustle and bustle. A zoo of patients and staff and physicians.”
But last weekend, the emergency department was so quiet, it was eery, he said.