Nfld. & Labrador

Protective equipment shortage slowing return of health-care services

Top health officials say the rescheduling of surgeries postponed because of the pandemic has been limited by an ongoing struggle to acquire personal protective equipment.

Health officials say resuming surgeries must be balanced against an anticipated surge of COVID-19 cases

Eastern Health has been increasing the number of daily surgeries since May 11. (CBC)

Top health officials say the rescheduling of surgeries postponed because of the pandemic has been limited by an ongoing struggle to acquire personal protective equipment.

Dr. Larry Alteen, Eastern Health's vice-president of medical services, says the short supply of equipment like masks and gloves is a worldwide problem.

"This is a worldwide problem," said Dr. Larry Alteen, Eastern Health's vice-president of medical services.

"Access to PPE does limit what we can do across the board. I don't think we would be able to do things the way we did them pre-COVID. We would not have all the resources available to do them presently."

For planing for this week we talked about going up an additional five surgeries a day.'- Larry Alteen

Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister said the province's deliveries of equipment are "late and light."

"That has been a consistent feature since we put in our orders in January," said John Haggie at Friday's COVID-19 briefing.

Haggie said that has done more to prevent surgeries than concerns about the availability of beds in health-care facilities. The health minister said 62 per cent of hospital beds were occupied as of Friday morning, and regional health authorities would be comfortable if that was as high as 75 per cent.

Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie was a surgeon in Gander before entering provincial politics. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"Our challenge around doing more in terms of elective surgeries at the moment is not beds. The challenge is that we are going through PPE for non-COVID-related cases because of new regulations around infection prevention and control way faster than we would this time last year," he said.

Haggie said until a large, reliable supply of equipment is found, health authorities will have to continue to assess their surgical capabilities week by week.

In mid-March, health authorities across the province postponed all elective surgeries and procedures to free up hospital beds and resources for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases.

On May 11 the province moved from Level 5, the highest level, to Level 4 of its five-stage reopening plane.

Since then health authorities have been working to rebook thousands of postponed procedures, but Alteen says it's happening slowly because of a number of considerations, not just protective equipment.

"PPE is one of them but it's also the number of hospital beds, available intensive-care beds, available blood products. Are we able to maintain social distancing?" he said. "But PPE is definitely one and every week we are looking at: what is the supply? And do we have enough to do the types of procedures we want?"

Dr. Larry Alteen, Eastern Health's vice-president of medical services, says short supply of personal protective equipment is limiting the number of surgeries that can be done, more than health-care capacity. (CBC)

Alteen says the number of daily procedures beyond emergency surgeries that were not postponed has grown steadily.

"We started off last week with, 'Let's try a number of surgeries per day.' This week we are doing more and next week we are doing even more," he said.

"For planning for this week we talked about going up an additional five surgeries a day, and planning for next week we are looking at even more. We just have to make sure we have the capacity."

Health officials say they are aware of the effect on patients of waiting for procedures like heart and cancer surgeries.

"That impact on patients is absolutely something that is taken very seriously and we understand the angst that that causes for patients," he said.

"Our providers, our physicians and other health-care providers are extremely worried and they are trying to prioritize their patient to determine who are the most urgent ones and get those people looked after first. They worry about their patients and their care and access to it."

Balancing act

Health officials say it's been impossible to predict how much capacity is needed for COVID-19.

"It a really tough balancing act that requires treading between being overly cautious or overly aggressive," said Alteen

"If you look at the overall number of patients who were hospitalized for COVID in these past 10 weeks it's not a huge number but If public health didn't do all the great work it did tracing, contacting and isolating people who may have been exposed to COVID, then this number could have exploded, and you have to be prepared for that."

Over the May 24 weekend did people engage more? Will we see more cases? We'll see over the next week to 10 days what the impact of that has been.- Larry Alteen

Alteen said the health-care system must continue to be prepared for the possibility of a surge of COVID-19 cases.

"It's anticipated that there will be a surge of COVID activity at some time in the future. We just don't know when, and prior to having the vaccine it's anticipated that will happen," he said.

 "As you loosen up the restrictions it's expected we will see more cases. Over the May 24 weekend did people engage more? Will we see more cases? We'll see over the next week to 10 days what the impact of that has been."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Quinn

CBC News

Mark Quinn is a videojournalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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