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Alberta’s health minister says the province’s backlog of surgeries has stabilized and the government will focus on reducing it over the coming months.

Jason Copping says the wait list stood at 68,000 cases before the pandemic began and has been rising and falling as waves of COVID-19 have swept through.

He says the backlog has settled at 81,600, and he will work with Alberta Health Services to shave that figure down to the original 68,000 by the middle of next year.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government has been sharply criticized for easing public health restrictions in the summer just as the Delta variant ramped up.

By September, hospitals had been pushed to the brink by soaring caseloads.

That forced Alberta Health Services to redeploy medical staff to deal with the health crisis, resulting in thousands of scheduled surgeries being cancelled.

Copping said the 81,600 figure has held steady for a month.

“This appears at this point in time to be the peak,” he said Thursday. “As long as we keep COVID under control, we can start to work the list down from here.

“That is going to be a major job, make no mistake, but ... it’s doable with the support of the teams of physicians and staff who have worked so hard with their patients over the past 21 months.”

The government has said at least 15,000 surgeries were cancelled due to the pandemic’s fourth wave this fall.

David Shepherd, health critic for the Opposition NDP, said the government needs to act faster to reduce the wait list.

“So many Albertans are going into the holidays waiting and worrying, often in pain, because they can’t get their critical surgery,” said Shepherd.

“Tens of thousands of them are waiting because Jason Kenney and the UCP failed to act when the danger of the fourth wave was obvious.”

Copping also announced that lawyer Gregory Turnbull will be the new chairman of Alberta Health Services, which is in charge of delivering front-line medical care.

Turnbull has served on numerous medical committees and boards, including the Dean’s Advisory Council at the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.

Copping said about 290,000 surgeries a year were completed before COVID-19 gripped the globe in early 2020.

When the virus first struck, he said, the surgery wait list was at 68,000. That rose to 77,000 in the first wave, but went back down to 68,000 until the fourth wave took hold this fall, he said.

Alberta is now facing the new Omicron variant. Seventeen cases have been reported.

There were 368 people in hospital Thursday with COVID-19, including 70 in intensive care. There have been 3,271 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began.

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