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British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix responds to questions during a news conference regarding COVID-19, in Vancouver, on March 14, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said 90 per cent of patients who had their surgery postponed during the first wave of COVID-19 have been able to have their procedures completed.

On March 16, the province decided to cancel elective surgeries to ensure there would be hospital capacity for patients with COVID-19. Early in that month, 93,000 B.C. patients were waiting for non-urgent surgeries.

Mr. Dix announced on Wednesday that between May 18 - when non-urgent scheduled surgeries resumed - and Nov. 12, more than 163,000 patients had their procedures, including 90 per cent of the patients who had a surgery postponed in the early days of COVID-19.

But while British Columbia is expected to wipe out the surgical delays caused by the virus, the province will still face a significant surgical waitlist, a problem that was present even before the pandemic. On Wednesday, the province added resources with an aim to wipe out the entire waitlist within 22 months.

The B.C. government launched a surgical renewal plan in May, aiming to catch up on those COVID-delayed surgeries. The province estimated at the time that 30,000 non-urgent surgeries would either be postponed or left on a waitlist owing to COVID-19. A further 24,000 patients may have been without a referral to a waitlist.

According to Wednesday’s announcement, health authorities called more than 111,000 patients who were on waitlists to ask if they were ready to reschedule their surgery. Meanwhile, nearly 8,000 additional hours of operating room time was added compared with the same period last year.

The total waitlist was also reduced by 6 per cent since last March, and 755 new health-care professionals were hired to support surgical renewal.

“These are all remarkable achievements at the six-month mark,” Mr. Dix said.

For the 10 per cent of patients who have not yet completed their procedures, some weren’t able to make the surgery, according to Michael Marchbank, former chief executive of Fraser Health and a consultant to the Health Ministry. He said he hopes these surgeries will be delivered in the near future.

“How these numbers typically work is that it will slow down as you get closer to the end. But I would expect the end to come within two to three months. So that we get that last 10 per cent of patients who were scheduled,” he said.

Mr. Marchbank said in July that the overall backlog could be cleared in 15 months, down from a forecast of two years made in May. However, the Ministry of Health noted on Wednesday that the timeline now is expected to be 15 to 22 months.

Health authorities will add 24 per cent to their capacity between April, 2021, and March 31, 2022, compared with 2019-2020, according to Mr. Marchbank. This means about 99,000 more operating room hours will be added.

Matthew Chow, president of Doctors of BC, said he is pleased that most British Columbians have had their elective surgeries over the past few months. He said these surgeries may be considered non-essential in the health-care system, but they are essential for people who are waiting for relief.

“I know that B.C. surgeons and anesthesiologists, among many others, worked really hard to accomplish this work during the pandemic, when everything takes twice as long to do because of all the special protections and precautions,” he said in an interview.

He said he hopes there will be a continuation of the pace of the surgeries, given that waitlists are still growing in B.C. “But we’re optimistic that there’s been some progress.”

Several other provinces are struggling with reducing their surgery backlogs.

Alberta cancelled 30 per cent of surgeries in Edmonton in late October. In a briefing in December, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, said as much as 60 per cent of non-urgent scheduled surgeries will be postponed in the Edmonton zone as part of a new measure to respond to increased COVID-19 hospitalizations.

In Manitoba, thousands of operations have been delayed. Shared Health Services Manitoba, a provincial health-care co-ordination agency, reported that about 7,000 procedures were cancelled during the pandemic’s first wave, including 5,300 in Winnipeg, although those numbers exclude pediatric procedures and endoscopies.

According to a study published in the CMAJ last fall, it could take Ontario more than a year and half to catch up on the tens of thousands of surgeries postponed because of the pandemic. It estimated the province had a backlog of 148,364 operations between March 15 and June 13.

-with reports from James Keller and Canadian Press

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