Elective surgery delays to last another week as COVID-19 cases ‘plateau’

Victorians have been warned to brace for another week of delays to elective surgeries as the state’s two major trauma hospitals pause or postpone some operations because of a workforce shortage caused by the latest COVID-19 wave.

The Alfred has paused elective surgeries for at least a week while “high numbers” of clinical staff are off sick with COVID-19 and the Royal Melbourne Hospital said some surgeries may be deferred in coming days, but the health minister says COVID-19 cases are plateauing.

The Alfred hospital has paused all elective surgery after a surge in the number of staff calling in sick.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Both hospitals are also dealing with an increase in trauma cases, putting additional pressure on the system.

Across the state’s public hospitals, 1635 workers with COVID-19 were on sick leave on Wednesday. A further 126 ambulance workers were also off sick.

The number of Victorians hospitalised with COVID-19 is rising again. As of Wednesday, 731 people were in hospital with the virus – a 32.9 per cent increase from Friday – and 32 people were in intensive care. Twenty people died from the virus in the past 24 hours and 40 people died in the past two days.

An Alfred Health spokesman apologised to the public for the temporary pause on elective surgeries, which he said was caused by staff off sick with COVID-19 and a high demand for trauma services.

“This change is necessary to ensure we maintain capacity to continue to care for patients in our hospitals, and those who arrive needing lifesaving emergency surgery,” he said.

“We believe we are at the peak of this wave’s impact within our health service, and efforts are underway to reschedule impacted patients.”

While there is a strain on hospitals and other healthcare services across the state, only the Alfred and the Royal Melbourne Hospital have delayed elective surgeries. The pauses do not affect emergency surgeries.

A spokeswoman for the Austin hospital said that the hospital’s theatres were operating as usual, and the health service had not had to pause or reduce capacity due to staffing.

A Royal Melbourne Hospital spokeswoman said the health service continued to conduct planned category one and urgent category two surgeries, as well as all same-day procedures.

“As an adult major trauma centre, emergency surgeries are also continuing, however, due to increasing demand for our services and increasing levels of staff illness, some category-three surgeries have been deferred,” she said.

“The RMH understands this has a significant impact on the community and will continue to review this on a daily basis.”

Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said she believed COVID-19 case numbers would fall in coming weeks.

“The advice that I have is that we are plateauing,” she said.

“But what we know from previous waves is that there’s a lag in hospitalisation from the peak of infection.

“So the next two weeks are definitely going to continue to be challenging for our healthcare workers and, indeed, for all Victorians. So, it’s timely, again, to ask Victorians to consider the ways in which they can take action to reduce the spread of COVID.”

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