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Severe staff shortages and "overwhelming demand" forced the Southern District Health Board to defer all non-emergency and non-cancer-related surgery at both Dunedin and Southland Hospitals on Monday, and further cancellations are expected.
All southern general practices were emailed on Monday to advise them surgery would be deferred that day.
Some patients were also transferred from Southland to Dunedin to ease pressure on the wards in Invercargill.
"Hospitals are facing overwhelming demand for our emergency departments and for our inpatient services," SDHB chief operating officer Hamish Brown said yesterday.
"This has been combined with high staff sickness and reflects the pressure that the whole southern system is under as we move to the winter months."
Mr Brown’s email to clinicians said all non-cancer surgery, which included patients waiting in the community for acute surgery, had been deferred, and the board was "making plans to reprioritise our activity over the coming week."
Mr Brown said in a statement acute, emergency, and cancer surgery continued yesterday and some complex non-cancer surgery was also undertaken.
"We expect further deferred planned surgeries during winter as our community battles with Covid-19 and influenza."
Patient safety remained the board’s priority and staff were working to manage patient flow, Mr Brown said.
"We are focusing on discharging patients who are well enough to leave the hospital to further free up beds and staff.
“We are disappointed at having to defer surgeries. These decisions are not made lightly and involve careful consideration.
"We understand deferring surgery will be upsetting for our patients and we are committed to ensuring these surgeries are rebooked quickly.”
WellSouth primary health organisation chief executive Andrew Swanson-Dobbs said all parts of the health system were under pressure.
"General practices will continue to look after these patients until hospitals are able to see them," he said.
"It just adds extra demand and pressure on to already stretched general practices in our region."
Many DHBs, including Southern, have had to defer elective surgery in recent weeks due to shortages of staffed beds and an excess of patients.
Stopping all acute surgery as well demonstrates the difficulty the SDHB is facing to maintain services when dozens of staff call in sick for each shift.
Covid-19 is also still dogging the southern region — 733 new community cases were reported yesterday, 23 southerners were in hospital with the disease, and ward 4C at Dunedin Hospital was closed to visitors after a patient was exposed to Covid-19.
One further southerner who had Covid-19 died yesterday, from a national toll of 16 deaths and 8028 new cases.
An SDHB spokeswoman said there was often a jump in Covid-19 case numbers on Tuesdays, and it appeared yesterday's big increase — the largest in several weeks — was probably due to the long Matariki weekend.
The SDHB asked that people continue to upload rapid antigen test results so it had an accurate understanding of Covid-19 rates in the region.