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The Canberra Times

Elective surgery delays likely to be faced over winter as flu, COVID spreads

How do we manage flu season during the COVID-19 pandemic? | April 14, 2022 | ACM

Elective surgeries could face delays throughout winter with rising COVID hospitalisations and flu cases placing extraordinary demand on an understaffed Canberra health system.

Authorities have urged Canberrans to wear masks indoors in an attempt to lessen pressures on the system, with the territory government looking to bolster public health campaigns following the federal election.

But record numbers of COVID patients is not the sole reason for increasing demand as influenza is spreading throughout the Canberra community, with cases more than doubling in a fortnight.

Canberra Health Services have taken the step this week to postpone elective surgeries due to pressures on the system.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said it was unclear how long delays on elective surgery would last, saying it would be managed on a day-to-day basis.

She said the move to postpone elective surgeries was due to staffing shortages and was done to ensure emergency surgeries could be completed.

"We know that even though it's called elective surgery that this surgery is life changing for many people and that many people will be waiting for their elective surgery with pain or mobility challenges," she said.

"This is really challenging and we absolutely understand that, and if we didn't need to take this measure we wouldn't be doing it."

The head of the ACT branch of the Australian Medical Association has urged Canberrans to consider wearing masks indoors, warning that increasing cases of flu and COVID was exacerbating demand on the health system.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said delays on elective surgery would be worked through on a day-to-day basis. Picture: James Croucher

Professor Walter Abhayaratna said it was important for the community to continue its awareness of COVID. He said ignoring it would lead to higher case numbers that would result in further effects on the health system, such as the cancellation of elective surgeries.

"If we keep going on into the into the flu season and the winter season, where the numbers might increase in hospital of serious COVID infections, that's going to have more of an impact," Professor Abhayaratna told ABC radio.

A new report has revealed there has been 97 cases of influenza reported to ACT Health in the fortnight to May 1. There has been a total of 134 reported cases of flu across the territory this year.

Canberra escaped large scale flu outbreaks in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 restrictions and the closure of international borders.

Opposition health spokeswoman Leanne Castley said it was disappointing that elective surgeries had to be cancelled. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

But the number of flu cases reported so far in Canberra this year is already at a higher level than it was over the same period in 2017 and 2018.

The number of cases over a similar period in 2019 was 363 but that was a horror flu season for the capital with close to 4000 cases.

There were 74 people hospitalised with COVID-19 and 1098 new cases recorded in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday.

Ms Stephen-Smith said health authorities would continue to monitor the situation and would strengthen public health issues if recommended by the Chief Health Officer or the Australian Health Principal Protection Committee.

She said the ACT government still encouraged people to wear masks in indoor settings where physical distancing was difficult. But she said public health campaigns had been difficult during the federal election.

"There hasn't been a lot of capacity for public health campaigns. During the election campaign, our airwaves have been saturated with election advertising. As we come out of this federal election period, I think we will certainly consider what we can do to ramp up those public health messages for our community," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

Ms Stephen-Smith said staffing had been a challenge, after it was revealed about one in eight staff in Canberra's public health system have indicated they intended to leave in the next two years.

Concerns have been raised about senior and experienced staff leaving the territory's public hospitals, particularly in the intensive care unit after there were 25 resignations over the Omicron peak.

Ms Stephen-Smith said there were a combination of factors leading to staff shortages, beyond staff leaving. She said there were ongoing conversations with senior leadership and staff everyday about what they could do.

She said there were no issues with bed capacity at the hospital, only staffing capacity.

"Our constraint is not around the physical capacity of the hospital in terms of beds or theatres. It is really about the workforce at this point in time," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

"We've actually had to occasionally close some theatres at Canberra Hospital because we didn't have the staff to support that throughput in our theatres."

"We are also seeing some impact on people staying longer in hospitals as a result of COVID-19, that is creating some bed block and the result will be less availability of beds but again that's about the staffing for those beds more than it is about the physical infrastructure of beds."

Opposition health spokeswoman Leanne Castley said it was disappointing that elective surgeries had to be postponed.

"This is a huge disappointment to Canberrans and my heart goes out to those people who are needing those surgeries," Ms Castley said.

"This comes back to the [Health] Minister and asking what has she done to plan for this, COVID isn't new and our health staff are doing the very best they can.

"We just need to make sure that we are taking good care of our staff out there and somehow they need to fix the waiting times for elective surgeries."