Halifax Infirmary. Photo: NSHA

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Non-urgent, elective surgical procedures have resumed at hospitals across the province. As well, ultrasounds, X-rays, and MRI diagnostic tests reserved exclusively for the most urgent patients during the COVID-19 lockdown are now available again.

Outpatient clinics for chronic pain, orthopedic assessments, renal, and ECG are also re-opening, although the pace could be gradual. For more information on specific programs, check here.

Hospitals cancelled scheduled surgical procedures and diagnostic tests so they would have beds and staff available to deal with a projected wave of in-patients infected by the COVID-19 virus. As well, the NSHA re-deployed nearly 1,000 people to develop new mental health programs, assist nursing homes struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks, and to help Public Health with testing and contact tracing.

But over the past nine weeks, the highest number of COVID-19 inpatient cases at any one time was 13; the maximum number of COVID-19 patients in Intensive Care was five.

“We know there are many Nova Scotians who are concerned about their health since their care or treatment has been delayed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Brendan Carr, CEO for the Nova Scotia Health Authority, which operates hospitals across the province. “We share their concern and request your patience as resuming services is going to take some time as we assess and prioritize patients whose procedures were cancelled. This needs to be done gradually and cautiously.”

The NSHA estimates at least 2,100 people had their surgical procedures postponed during the last two months of the pandemic. Dr. Greg Hirsch, Senior Medical Director for the NSHA Perioperative Program, says the “real” number could be three to four times higher, because most surgeons simply stopped booking new patients. Hirsch defended the decision to cancel bookings for people whose surgeries had originally been slated for next month (June). He said the backlog of cases that built up over the past two months has forced the system to “re-order the list from top to bottom.”

“We continued to do some surgeries during COVID and we created a triage system to make sure we looked after the most urgent cases,” said Hirsch.  “The lower level of triage were people who wouldn’t come to any harm with an eight- or 12-week delay — so we need to make sure those are the people we get to next. We couldn’t just go with what cases had been on the books for June. We are allowing each specialty group in each hospital in each zone of the province to prioritize.”

Carr said anyone whose medical condition has changed significantly should contact their doctor. “We don’t have any specific knowledge of anyone who died because their procedure was cancelled or because of these circumstances,” said Carr, in response to a reporter’s question.

Dr. Drew Bethune from Cancer Care Nova Scotia, said cancer patients who were already being treated continued to receive radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery during the pandemic.

“It’s really thanks to the people of Nova Scotia and their collective action that we avoided a significant disaster as a province,” said Carr. “I do think we are at point where we can congratulate ourselves for having suppressed this virus.”

That said, Carr noted that the fact that hospitals must stay prepared for either a potential second wave or to assist long-term care facilities means he won’t set a specific date for when all clinical services will be restored. He says that will depend on the level of COVID-19 activity. Like businesses, hospital waiting rooms have had to reconfigure their space and outpatients are asked to follow the advice of Public Health officers who are recommending people wear masks when they are indoors in proximity to other people.

“There’s a tremendous sense of urgency on our part to re-introduce services but we expect it is going to be a gradual process,” reiterated Carr. He suggested people consult the NSHA website for daily updates and to wait for calls from clinics where they are seen by their doctor or nurse practitioner.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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