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Delayed surgeries, lab closings among steps to cover shortage of health-care staff

Some health workers being re-assigned, ambulances diverted.
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Postponements of elective, scheduled surgeries will continue until the end of the month at the health authority's three largest sites: Royal Jubilee Hospital, pictured, Victoria General Hospital and Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Island Health is temporarily shuffling health-care workers, closing laboratories and diverting ambulances as it struggles to cope with Omicron-driven staffing challenges.

President and CEO Kathy MacNeil said while temporarily pausing or changing services “has a real impact on those who have to wait longer for care,” it’s necessary at this “most extraordinary time.”

Island Health said postponements of elective, scheduled surgeries in early January will continue until the end of the month at the health authority’s three largest sites: Victoria General Hospital, Royal Jubilee Hospital and Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, while remaining sites restart surgeries where staffing allows.

From Jan. 9 to 15, 355 non-urgent scheduled surgeries were postponed in Island Health, according to Health Minister Adrian Dix.

As well, Island Health ambulatory care services — where patients come to hospital for same-day treatments and procedures and return home — have been restricted to those with the greatest need, as some ambulatory care and surgical staff are redeployed to areas of critical demand.

Diverting ambulances is also part of the plan. At Saanich Peninsula Hospital, Island Health recently diverted ambulances from the emergency department over five days to lower the number of incoming patients to ensure a manageable staff-to-patient ratio.

The health authority has implemented rotating ­ambulance diversions at the emergency departments at Port Hardy Hospital and Port McNeill Hospital as required, based on hospital staffing, “to ensure that we can support inpatient care at each site and ­provide emergency lab access in Northern Vancouver Island.”

Staffing levels are also being adjusted on a day-to-day and shift-by-shift basis, it said.

When necessary, new a­dmissions to psychiatric ­emergency services may be paused and patients temporarily cared for in the main emergency department, or moved back to the main emergency ­department if they are already admitted.

Island Health said it is temporarily closing the outpatient lab at 1505 Admirals Rd. until April 1, and asking patients to use the Victoria General Hospital outpatient lab.

At Sidney’s outpatient lab on James White Boulevard, hours have been reduced to 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and the lab will be closed Saturdays, while the Saanich Peninsula Hospital outpatient lab will reinstate Saturday hours, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Staffing at long-term care sites is being monitored and contingency plans are in place, including rescheduling ­ activities or services and ­moving staff across sites as needed — ­something that was banned before vaccines were available. A vaccine mandate for health-care workers is now in place.

“We are grateful to the ­residents of the communities of Vancouver Island for their understanding and continued support of our health care teams during this challenging time,” MacNeil said in a statement, praising the “extraordinary efforts” of health-care workers despite the challenges.

From Jan. 10-16, a total of 17,958 health care workers across the province called in sick due to COVID-19 and other illnesses — down about 2,000 from the previous week — including 3,317 in Island Health. That’s “significantly more” than in previous years, said Dix.

“That puts significant pressure on our health-care system and we are responding to that through a number of measures to address and ensure that core services are in place and people get the health care they need when they need it,” said Dix.

“I think we’re taking the steps now to ensure that when British Columbians need health services urgently, they can get them right now and we’re ready then to restore any services that have been delayed. We’ve done this before and we’ve delivered before and we will again.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com