Surgeries must resume in Ontario, says NDP’s Horwath

After stopping them for three weeks, Ontario Premier Doug Ford must find a way to restart non-urgent surgeries in the province, Opposition and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Wednesday.

As part of the government’s latest near-lockdown, Ontario’s hospitals were told on Jan. 5 to pause all non-urgent surgeries and procedures for the third time during the pandemic.

New health restrictions were necessary to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, the government said on Jan. 3, and non-urgent surgeries and procedures needed to pause in order to save resources for critical care.

In the summer of 2020, the province had a backlog of almost 150,000 surgeries. A study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal said it would take the province seven years to get through them all.

The Ontario Medical Association, which advocates for doctors, said last year it would take 30 months to catch up on knee replacements, 25 months for cataract surgeries, 19 months for hip replacements, 14 months for heart bypasses, and 11 months for MRIs.

In July 2021, the Ontario government promised $324 million to hospitals and other health providers to help them reduce the backlog by performing surgeries and other procedures on evenings and weekends.

Ontario Health CEO Matt Anderson estimates up to 10,000 procedures per week have been delayed since Jan. 5.

Schools that were closed for in-person learning for two extra weeks after the holidays are now open, while indoor dining, gyms, cinemas and other recreational facilities can open on Monday.

The government wants to lift more restrictions on Feb. 21, and most of them by March 14.

It hasn’t said when surgeries and procedures will resume, but a government source told iPolitics it’s continually assessing key COVID indicators — including hospitalizations, the occupancy of intensive-care units (ICUs), and the positivity rate of tests — to decide when hospitals can return to business as usual.

Both the test-positivity rate and new hospitalizations have been dropping for about two weeks, while the number of patients in ICUs has hovered around 600.

The government is wary of committing to restarting surgeries and procedures too soon, because hospitalizations “are a lagging indicator,” the source said.

“Doug Ford, get to it,” Horwath said Wednesday. “Put together a plan. Make sure that we get those surgeries scheduled, and start clearing the backlog to help end the suffering (of) our patients here in Ontario.”

If she were premier, Horwath said she’d launch a centralized surgery-referral system to better organize procedures, extend operating-room hours, incentivize current staff to stay in health care and former staff to return to it, and cut fees for retired nurses to allow them to rejoin the workforce.

In a separate news conference on Wednesday, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca released an “emergency long-term-care plan” to fortify the province’s nursing homes during the pandemic.

People with chronic health conditions are more susceptible to COVID, meaning nursing-home residents are at much higher risk of serious disease. They also live in tight quarters where COVID is more rampant.

Ontario’s nursing homes had significant problems before, but COVID brought them to a breaking point. Living conditions, staffing levels, and quality of care all need improvement, a government-appointed commission said.

The Ford government has poured billions of dollars into long-term care since the pandemic began, and has promised billions more over the next decade to add beds and hire more personal support workers and other staff. It also passed legislation adding accountability measures and boosting penalties for bad actors in the sector.

And although he promised to put an “iron ring” around Ontario’s nursing homes devastated by infection and death in March 2020, their residents have disproportionately suffered in wave after wave of COVID.

The emergency plan Del Duca released on Wednesday assumes more staffing, vaccination, and testing, and better infection prevention and control.

With an election less than five months away, his party says it will release its official platform on nursing care “in the coming months.”

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