Eastern Townships hospital wait lists grow as region braces for COVID-19 picture to darken

About 11,100 people are awaiting non-emergency surgeries and treatments, a summit not reached since the spring. Public health says the region is coping for now, but expects the situation to worsen.

More than 11,000 people have seen non-urgent procedures postponed, a peak not seen since spring

The Fleurimont Hospital, in Sherbrooke, is home to 8 separate ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks. Health facilities in the Eastern Townships are keeping their heads above water. But they're preparing for the worst. (CBC)

First off, the news from the Eastern Townships isn't entirely bad, which in the current context has to at least count for something.

True, the region's hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients is stretched almost to the limit, with 72 of 74 short-term beds occupied. But they're in the midst of increasing that number by 50 per cent and adding another 37 spaces. They'll do likewise for intensive care beds if need be, but for now just 10 of 25 are occupied.

There's even enough room at the inn to accommodate patients from other regions, eight at last count.

More ominously, about 700 people have seen non-emergency surgeries postponed in the last week, and the waiting list for non-essential procedures and treatments now stands at 11,100. The last time it hit that level was during the worst of this past spring's first wave.

"It's not the situation we would have asked for at the beginning of 2021, but here we are," said Dr. Colette Bellavance, the director of professional services for the regional health authority, the CIUSSS de l'Estrie-CHUS. 

And there are nearly a dozen ongoing outbreaks in the region's hospitals.

Situation 'very critical'

"The situation is under very tight surveillance," Bellavance told a news conference Tuesday.

The story of the Eastern Townships is broadly similar to that of other regions: they're coping, but not all that comfortably. And the expectation, given the most recent projections from the provincial government, is it will probably get appreciably worse, and soon.

According to Dr. Lucie Opatrny, the associate deputy minister of health in charge of the hospital sector for the province, the big picture situation is "very critical. And that is not only in the greater Montreal area, but really all across Quebec."

It's not unprecedented to have lengthy waiting lists for elective and other non-urgent surgeries, she told CBC's Daybreak, although the current state of the provincial queue is about 30 per cent longer than it was at the same date last year.

Bellavance suggested it's likely that more cancellations and postponements are in the offing unless the sharp rise in case numbers begins slowing.

Dr. Alain Poirier, the public health director for the Townships, said every effort is being made to slow those numbers.

The region has ample testing capacity and has started offering pre-emptive tests to people who have needed to self-isolate because of close contacts with an infected person prior to their return to work, he said.

Residents in 14 of the region's 30 CHSLDs have received at least one dose of COVID vaccine. But the fight is far from over. Asked where the biggest problem areas lie, Poirier said "the short answer is [the virus] is everywhere."

The hope, then, is that measures like the recently imposed curfew will dampen the rise in cases. It's one shared across the province.

"What I'm hoping to see is ... we have a significant decrease in the number of daily cases, which would then translate into a decrease in the pressure on hospitalizations again, two weeks after we see a decrease in cases in the population," Opatrny said. "And that is definitely what we're all hoping for."

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