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Northam decision to lift elective procedures ban may not ease UVa furloughs

Area hospitals are set to resume elective operations after May 1 after Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that he’ll let the ban on non-emergency procedures expire.

Hospitals across Virginia haven’t seen a surge in patients from COVID-19 as they initially predicted in March. With patient loads remaining manageable, many facilities have asked for the ban to be lifted.

“People have followed our stay-at-home order, and we are flattening that curve that we often talk about,” Northam said. “Our hospital census levels have remained steady, so now it is time for our hospitals to resume non-emergency activities.”

Northam’s decision comes a day after the University of Virginia Health System said it was furloughing employees and cutting pay of physicians and executives.

The UVa Medical Center has hundreds of empty beds and has seen surgeries and clinical visits drop by 70% and 90%, respectively, leading to a deficit of $85 million a month, officials said earlier this week.

Hospital spokesman Eric Swensen said Northam’s decision was helpful and that the medical center will begin scheduling those procedures as soon as possible once the restrictions lift.

However, it is too soon to tell how the change could affect the staffing adjustments announced Tuesday. The changes are an attempt to make up the existing deficit, according to officials.

“As we noted yesterday in our announcement, we will continually evaluate our situation and adjust these actions as necessary, which includes adjusting staffing on a shift-by-shift basis to meet patient care needs based on patient volumes,” Swensen said.

Jennifer Downs, a spokeswoman with Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, said elective surgeries will restart May 4.

“We have worked diligently to develop a process that will allow us to perform these procedures in a safe manner,” Downs said in a statement. “We are scheduling patients based on the most urgent needs, and will continue to expand our capacity as appropriate.”

Downs said that although the virus remains in the community, the hospital wouldn’t restart procedures if officials weren’t confident in their ability to keep the community safe.

“Continued masking requirements, COVID screenings at our entrances and re-designed waiting rooms to ensure proper social distancing, as well as new schedules for procedures to allow for continued robust cleaning in-between patients, are all still in place,” Downs said. “Additionally, we have also expanded our pre-op screening process and will also be performing a COVID test on all patients prior to surgery.”

In the Thomas Jefferson Health District, 59 people have been hospitalized and 264 people have tested positive. The district unveiled a new, more detailed dashboard of current cases Wednesday afternoon.

Other area agencies are working to make sure essential services are still possible.

On Wednesday, the American Red Cross wrapped up a two-day blood drive at John Paul Jones Arena in an effort to replenish its blood supply, which has dwindled during the coronavirus pandemic.

Due to social distancing guidelines, the Red Cross limited participation to 65 appointment slots each day; dozens showed up to donate.

In-patient and outpatient elective procedures can include knee replacements and some cancer treatments.

“These are procedures that can wait awhile but certainly not forever,” Northam said.

Dr. Craig Kent, UVa’s executive vice president for health affairs, said Monday that the medical center does have the ability to isolate COVID-19 patients from the rest of the hospital after opening its new six-story tower early. As of Monday, the medical center was treating 24 patients who had the virus.

The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, which had urged Northam to lift the ban, said in a statement Wednesday that it was “deeply appreciative of the decision.”

“As the governor indicated today, Virginians who need medical procedures, surgeries and preventive care should know that it is safe to seek treatment at hospitals, which have ample capacity to provide that medical care and also treat patients impacted by COVID-19,” a spokesman for the association said.


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