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The Canberra Times

Top doctor urges Canberrans to wear masks as elective surgeries cancelled

Canberrans should consider using masks indoors, the Australian Medical Association says, as the city's hospital beds are increasingly being taken up by people hospitalised with COVID-19.

Association ACT president Professor Walter Abhayaratna said elective surgeries will be postponed as beds are taken up by the 80 people hospitalised with COVID-19 in the ACT.

Category two and three elective surgeries - such as knee replacements - will be postponed.

"It's essential surgery, people have enough suffering that they require the surgery, but it's not urgent. It's not requiring to be done immediately or in the next month," Dr Abhayaratna told ABC radio.

A category two elective surgery is one that needs treatment within 90 days, and a category three needs surgery within one year.

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.

"This is an ongoing process of managing day-by-day and week-by-week to get as much as we can but recognising the impact of our staff and workforce from COVID-19 and other things happening in our community," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

Ms Stephen-Smith 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."

Dr Abhayaratna also urged Canberrans to wear masks at large events and get their booster shots.

"At this stage the numbers are going up, particularly numbers of patients who are hospitalised with COVID," he said.

"So I would urge Canberrans to consider using masks indoors particularly, particularly when [they are in] football stadiums because that's why we're getting a lot of infections."

Dr Abhayaratna said while the number of cancelled surgeries at this point were likely to be small, the flu season was exacerbating rising COVID infections in Canberra.

"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," he said.

President of the Australian Medical Association's ACT branch, Dr Walter Abhayaratna. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

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.

There were 80 patients in ACT hospitals with COVID-19 as of Monday at 8pm, a record since the pandemic began for the ACT.

There were also five people in ICU, and two of them were on ventilators. A woman in her 90s carrying the virus died earlier this week.

ACT Health reminded Canberrans in a press release to stay away from emergency departments unless they were suffering an emergency.

"[COVID hospitalisations are] having a significant impact on our capacity at Canberra Hospital and Calvary Public Hospital Bruce, so we'd like to remind Canberrans to keep our emergency departments for emergencies," a spokesperson said.

"Our health services continue to face staff shortages due to COVID-19, other illnesses and leave."

Canberra's health system has come under enormous pressure in recent months due to increasing hospitalisations and staffing shortages.

More than 150 staff are off on any one day due to illness.

There are also many healthcare workers planning to leave the industry due to burnout, Dr Abhayaratna confirmed.

"People are getting tired, they're still doing their utmost and they are working when they have to [do] longer hours to cover their colleagues who are sick," the professor said, adding he saw this while on call at Canberra Hospital last week.

"They are very committed to the cause. But they are very fatigued.

"Unfortunately, some people, particularly very senior nurses, [are] voting with their feet and leaving the public hospital system, sometimes even leaving Canberra and hopefully that trend will not continue."

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