Surgeries postponed in Island Health amid staffing shortages

Some Island residents ­waiting years for surgeries were ­disappointed this week when they received notice that their non-urgent surgeries had been postponed by months due to a staffing shortage.

“There is currently a shortage of patient beds and staffing resources,” said the letter one Sooke senior received from her surgeon.

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“This shortage affects non-urgent surgeries requiring an overnight bed at the Royal Jubilee and Victoria General hospitals.”

The staffing shortage mostly involves registered nurses.

Doctors describe it as a ­perfect storm that includes the effects of burnout after a year of extra demands and risks of the pandemic, a concerted push to increase surgeries and reduce wait times, nurses lost to COVID- testing and ­immunization programs, and others who walked away from the high pressure of intensive and ­critical-care units for less risk and stress in other areas.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said during a news ­conference on Thursday that the postponements are relatively small in number and “are not directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Island Health’s situation has nothing to do with the COVID-19 situation or transfers from other health authorities,” said Dix.

Island Health has said it would welcome patient transfers from other health authorities if needed, but that had not happened as of Thursday.

Twelve scheduled non-urgent surgeries were cancelled between April 19 and 25, said Dix, with 198 cancelled in Fraser Health and 197 in Vancouver Coastal.

“Island Health has done a truly extraordinary job of doing surgeries in the past period, such that wait times and ­wait-lists are significantly smaller than they were at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dix.

Island Health performed 627 more surgeries between Jan. 8 and Feb. 4 this year than last year, an 11 per cent increase.

“What you’re seeing in Island Health is the ongoing significant pressure on the heath-care ­system, partly related to COVID‑19,” said Dix.

A Sooke pensioner who asked that her name not be used said she received 24-hour notice that her knee surgery scheduled for Tuesday had been postponed until June. “My knee limits my activities and movement, allows me only a few hours’ sleep at a time and I am in constant pain,” said the woman, who first complained to her doctor two years ago.

She had already paid for a two-month rental on equipment she will need post-surgery: a walker, toilet assist and bathtub-transfer bench. “I’m a senior on a very small pension so can ill afford to be out of pocket for equipment I now won’t need for at least another two months and will have to pay for again.”

She said two of her neighbours, with different conditions, also had their surgeries cancelled at different hospitals.

In an email sent to a patient Thursday, Island Health said it’s preparing to take on patients from other health authorities, as needed. “Patients being diverted from over-capacity Lower Mainland hospitals could have an impact on Island hospitals and we are making appropriate preparations to support our provincial health care system.”

Island Health said it is not postponing non-urgent surgeries on a broad basis but managing the situation on a day-to-day basis “to ensure the impact on patients is as minimal as possible.”

The goal is to preserve the critical- and urgent-care system, wrote Island Health, asking for understanding “as we take necessary steps to support our exhausted and stretched front-line health care workers, and the provincial health system as a whole.”

On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced 853 new COVID-19 cases in the province — including 30 in the Island Health region — and record-high hospitalizations for people requiring intensive care.

There are now 503 people in hospital with COVID-19 in B.C., including 178 in intensive-care units.

“We all need to continue to pay attention — our cases are still much higher than we want them to be, and that tells us that transmission is still happening in our communities,” said Henry, calling the number of people in hospital requiring specialized critical care “the highest ever.”

Island Health is reporting 264 active cases on the Island, of which 166 are in the south Island. There are 24 people COVID in hospital in Island Health, seven of whom are in intensive care, according to the B.C. Centre For Disease Control.

One additional death in Interior Health announced Thursday brings total COVID-19 deaths in B.C. to 1,577.

There have been 1.7 million people vaccinated in B.C., including more than 90,000 second doses.

Although vaccine delivery has been slow, Henry said, doses are now expected to arrive swiftly, which means everyone who wants a first dose could have one as early as mid-June.

Everyone in B.C. who is 18 and older is asked to register on the Get Vaccinated website or by calling 1-833-838-2323 if they haven’t already done so.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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