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Patients waiting as elective surgery restrictions lift Wednesday

HOUSTON – Restrictions on certain elective procedures will be lifted starting April 22. Hospitals stopped elective surgeries to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases. Last week Gov. Greg Abbott removed certain restrictions, including those for elective procedures and surgeries.

Patients still have to wait

A lot of people have been waiting for restrictions to ease up when it comes to certain procedures that have been put on hold. But some are already finding out just because restrictions are lifting, that doesn’t mean they will get to see a doctor this week.

“Abby started having ear infections beginning of the year and has four back to back ear infections since January,” Ann Herlocher said about her young daughter. “It was double ear infections too so poor kid.”

It’s a painful problem many parents deal with. Recurring ear infections mean Ann Herlocher’s 11-month-old daughter, Abby, needed ear tubes. Her surgery scheduled for March was canceled.

“I’ve had her in to the doctor in between then and now to make sure her ears are alright,” Herlocher said. “I was a little frustrated, but to be honest, with everything that is going on I understand why. I knew they needed those medical supplies for urgent situations.”

Even though restrictions will ease up this week, Herlocher still has to wait until May to see the doctor.

“I just hope the organization can happen now that elective surgeries are able to happen so she can be seen asap,” Herlocher said. “It is putting a strain on our family but at the same time we understand.”

Kathryn Messina is also having to wait. She was shocked when her mom’s surgery was canceled last month.

“Who would have thought that heart valve replacement is considered elective surgery,” Messina said.

In February, Kathryn’s 78-year-old Mom Yvonne found out she needed heart valve surgery.

“She was going to have either valve replacement surgery or repair the valves so that her shortness of breath and quality of life would get better. She would walk from the car to my front door and she would have to stop because she could hardly breathe,” Messina explains. “It’s because the blood is not filtering out of the heart. It’s going back into the heart. So that’s why she’s feeling like that. It’s not necessarily congestive heart failure, but it’s the leaky valve situation.”

Doctors said surgery was urgent. But they are still waiting and won’t see the doctor until May.

“From February to May, that’s a pretty long time for something he was wanting to get done as soon as possible,” Messina said. “It blows her mind to think this could help me longer. How much worse is it getting? But because of all of this, she can’t have surgery right now.”

KPRC 2 first introduced you to Kristy Callaway last month. After a year of fertility treatments, her implantation was on hold.

“We are starting these injections we are finally moving forward - and then - no we are not. This all of a sudden just stopped,” Callaway said.

The good news is, with restrictions lifting, she hopes to move forward with the procedure soon. The bad news is, there’s no telling when it will happen.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine has not yet made a ruling on fertility treatments but they’re supposed to this week. For now, families like the Callaways will wait.

KPRC 2 reached out to all of the major hospital systems in the Houston area to see when they’ll be starting elective procedures. Each has a different plan, prioritizing patients based on several factors. Mostly outpatient surgeries and procedures like mammograms or CT scans will start first. With the exception of the Harris Health System, which is choosing to not begin elective procedures yet.

How one hospital is reintroducing patients

Memorial Hermann, for example, has a four-phase plan to return to business.

“Making sure we can continue these safety procedures we have in place to protect employees, protect physicians can remain intact as we start bringing volumes up,” said Dr. Jamie McCarthy, the chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann Hospital.

The protocol includes social distancing in waiting rooms, staggered scheduling, and when necessary, asking patients to wait in their vehicles until the appointment time. Safety enhancements include screenings, masks and testing for patients and staff who need it.

“Recognizing that we still need to be safe,” Dr. McCarthy said. “There is still plenty of COVID out there and the last thing we want to do is undo all of the hard work we have done over the last month.”

They warn if we see COVID-19 cases go up, you can expect further delays in elective procedures.

“We still need to be prepared we could see a surge and another wave of patients that would require us to shift focus very quickly and to focus on the inpatient and the COVID 19 patients again,” Dr. McCarthy said.

Returning to elective procedures plan for Houston hospitals

Texas Children’s Hospital

Statement: Texas Children’s Hospital continues to monitor local and state announcements. In light of Gov. Abbott’s decision to loosen restrictions put in place for elective surgeries, we are prioritizing cases that initially may not have been urgent, but are now more important due to the several weeks’ delay. Through a phased approach, our surgical team is working through a large number of cases that are pressing, primarily outpatient, and prioritizing them appropriately based on a variety of factors. During the previous order, Texas Children’s continued to serve patients who needed us while remaining mindful of the impact elective surgeries may have had on critical supplies and resources. We remain prepared to care for those diagnosed with COVID-19 and cognizant of our supplies while providing the best care possible to all patients, as we are here for them during this time and beyond.

Harris Health Systems

Statement: Harris Health is not resuming elective procedure activities at this time. While other hospitals may decide to resume elective procedures and surgeries, it is premature for Harris Health hospitals that continue to see an increase in COVID-related patient care.

  • We want to assure the safety, staffing and resources needed to care for our patients with COVID complications.
  • Bringing more elective-procedure patients and staff into the hospitals at this time would create more risk for transmission.
  • Additionally, the governor’s easing of restrictions only applies to hospitals that can attest to a reserve of at least 25% bed capacity for COVID cases, which Harris Health cannot attest to at this time.
  • Harris Health hospitals have not seen a reduction in need with overall occupancy fluctuating between 58-73% with occupancy in Intensive Care Unit settings consistently between 70-90%, which has been compounded by an increasing number of COVID-suspected or confirmed cases.
  • Harris Health System continues to fulfill its mission of caring for all of Harris County including those who have historically suffered from health and social disparities including racial minorities, the indigent, and the uninsured and underinsured. This happens to be the segment of our population who is most impacted by the current coronavirus pandemic and perhaps the reason why Harris Health continues to experience very high hospital occupancy rates even as we brace ourselves for a surge.

Memorial Hermann

Statement: At Memorial Hermann, we recognize that many patients may be suffering from serious conditions and the need for medical intervention is essential to their overall health and wellbeing. To that end, with input from the CDC, elected officials and our physician leaders, on April 22 we will begin a phased approach to resume services that will allow us to address the current and ongoing medical needs of our patients. We will start with diagnostic and imaging procedures, like MRIs and mammograms, then safely and cautiously work our way back to surgeries.

We will continue to closely monitor the situation in Greater Houston. We remain confident in our ability to care for COVID-19 patients, while safely and thoughtfully bringing other procedures back online for the benefit of our patients. We have an adequate supply of PPE, access to treatments and research protocols, innovative solutions to protect our workforce and community, as well as the very best employees and physicians caring for our patients.

As we finalize our go-forward plan, we must be careful not to erase all of the crucial work that has been done to fight COVID-19. We can expect “normal” to look a bit different, and our many protective measures must continue.

· We will continue to screen our workforce and all those who enter a Memorial Hermann facility will continue to wear a mask.

· We will continue to enforce a no visitor policy.

· We will continue to expand our COVID-19 testing capabilities for our patients and the workforce.

· We will continue our rigorous sterilization process for all facilities and follow best practices for infection control.

· We will continue to ensure our workforce has an ample supply of PPE.

· We will continue to practice and encourage proper hand hygiene and other preventive measures.

· We will continue to enforce social distancing protocols in the workplace, including remote working, where possible.

CHI St. Luke’s Health

Statement: “We are working on a systematic approach to guide us in reopening diagnostic and surgical procedures within the parameters outlined by Governor Abbott’s executive order. Our plan is to begin providing certain diagnostic services and procedures in a thoughtful manner that ensures the safety of our providers, patients and staff. We are working closely with the Texas Hospital Association to follow the executive order and plan to responsibly increase the volume of certain procedures over the upcoming weeks. We will share more information as it becomes available.”

Houston Methodist

Statement: It is critical to our community that we safely and thoughtfully begin a return to diagnosing and treating their medical issues. Regardless of the virus, our friends, family and neighbors are still suffering from heart disease, cancer, neurological problems, etc. We must balance the need to be prepared for COVID-19 patients and the need to care for others without the virus. We will start with diagnostic procedures, like MRIs, CTs and mammograms, then safely and cautiously work our way back to surgeries when possible.

MD Anderson

Statement: The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is reviewing Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order lifting restrictions on non-urgent procedures under certain conditions and allowing those procedures to begin before the May 8 extension. In the interim, MD Anderson will continue performing those procedures that meet current standards related to medical necessity and deferring those that do not.

University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

We are still waiting on a statement from UTMB and will update this article when we have one.