Health chiefs have warned of further surgical cancellations across Northern Ireland as staff are shifted to treat increasing numbers of Covid patients in intensive care.
The Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Council said there was a need to take action to increase the capacity of the intensive care unit in hospitals across the region, and the only way to achieve this was to redeploy specialist staff working in other areas of the health care system.
The council also expressed concern about the increasing numbers of young people and unvaccinated pregnant women being admitted to hospital with Covid-19.
She said there had been cases of unvaccinated pregnant women who needed intensive care unit care and emergency caesarean delivery.
The council said that of all Covid-19 patients in the intensive care unit yesterday, 60% had not been vaccinated, and 13% had only received one injection.
Hundreds of procedures have been canceled in recent weeks, including some urgent cancer surgeries, due to stress on the system.
Paul Kavanagh, the board’s interim director of planning and commissioning, said he was not optimistic that pressures would abate beyond winter.
He said more cancellations next week are inevitable.
“It would be incredibly frustrating for patients and I totally accept that and we can’t help but apologize for it,” he said.
“It’s very difficult. It depends a lot on the number of critical care patients entering our system.
“We have seen an increase in recent days – we have seen an increase recently also in respiratory patients and these respiratory patients is an indication that some of them will need critical care as well in the coming days.
“It is a changing picture. But I think there will be more cancellations and we will do everything we can to limit that as much as possible, but our expectation is that we will not be able to prevent it completely and there will be more cancellations next week.”
Kavanaugh said there was no immediate plan to set up the Northern Ireland-area Nightingale ICU Covid Hospital in Belfast City Hospital.
Instead, he said, the funds were trying to escalate capacity within each of their regions, so that pressures would spread throughout the region.
Intensive care unit consultant Dr. George Gardiner described the situation in the intensive care wards.
“We’re seeing a different presentation of critically ill patients, those who go through the wards and deteriorate and come to intensive care are much younger, much younger and often with nothing else wrong with them,” he said.
“So if in previous times there was a perception that this was a disease of old people or people who are sicker, then the virus has changed or we simply have now only younger people left to get infected.”
He said employees are upset and stressed at not being able to perform the planned surgeries.
“This will affect and affect elective surgery, all elective procedures and urgent procedures,” he said of the influx of Covid-19 patients.
“In order to deal with the level of demand, we have to stress the system to the limit and we may have to bypass that.
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The only thing that can modify this is for people who have not yet had a vaccine to do so. This is not a huge request. It’s not a lifestyle modification, it’s just attending to get a vaccine.
“From what we see in intensive care, this is not a disease that you want to unnecessarily expose yourself to. Our patients are not improving quickly.”
Critical care nurse Anne-Marie Marley said she hasn’t seen many young people in the intensive care unit.
“It’s completely different this time, it’s something I’ve never seen in my 35 years of career, where we have young patients coming in, not necessarily with any pre-existing conditions,” she said.
“When you see kids coming in, 18-year-olds (of age) in and around, 30-year-olds, people younger than me coming in to this very high level of intervention and care. They are so terrified. It’s so annoying for the staff to witness “.
The pressure on the system has been exacerbated by the numbers of employees who have stopped working due to Covid-19, most of whom have had to self-isolate after coming into contact with a positive case.
Four more deaths of patients who tested positive for Covid-19 were reported in Northern Ireland today.
One of the deaths occurred in the previous 24-hour reporting period, with the other three prior to that time.
The Northern Ireland Ministry of Health said there were 1,389 new confirmed cases of the virus.
This morning, there were 359 COVID-19 patients in hospital, 44 of whom are in intensive care.
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