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Catholic Health wins state OK to resume elective surgeries in Erie County

The state Health Department's decision to allow Catholic Health System to resume elective surgeries at its Erie County hospitals will return as many as 300 furloughed workers to their jobs and help stem as much as $35 million a month in losses.

"It really is a big day for Catholic Health," CEO Mark A. Sullivan said during an online news conference Wednesday.

Surgeries will resume next week at Sisters of Charity, Mercy and Kenmore Mercy hospitals, but all patients must pass a Covid-19 test to be taken 72 hours before the procedure, said Marty Boryszak, Catholic Health's senior vice president of acute care services.

Last week, hospitals in 35 counties were allowed to resume elective surgeries, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had banned in March for fear that maximum hospital capacity would be needed statewide to treat Covid-19 patients.

It hasn't worked out that way, at least outside of the New York City area, and dozens of hospitals ended up furloughing employees because of plunging revenues from the lack of other procedures.

Cuomo, however, did not allow hospitals in Erie County to resume elective surgeries because of the large number of Covid-19 patients in the county.

“We turned the switch off six weeks ago for all the right reasons to prepare for a possible tsunami, which happily did not come, and to preserve (personal protective equipment) when it was in short supply. That supply problem has largely been fixed," said Dr. Kevin Gibbons, executive director of the UBMD Physicians Group and chief of neurosurgery at Kaleida Health. "So now we have patients who have been waiting for their surgery who pretty soon should have that done.”

Catholic Health has been able to transfer almost all of the Covid-19 patients in its system to the Sisters of Charity Hospital St. Joseph Campus in Cheektowaga, which opened March 26. Many recovering patients are sent to the former Absolut nursing home in Orchard Park, renamed the St. Joseph Post-Acute Center.

“Because these venues and their dedicated teams care for almost all the Covid-19 patients in Catholic Health, we were able to meet all the conditions of the executive order and request an exemption from the Erie County exclusion," Sullivan said.

Catholic Health applied for a waiver last Thursday, and Sullivan said a conference call Friday with state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and other officials led to an email from Albany at 10:05 p.m. Tuesday, granting the waiver.

The return of 250 to 300 of Catholic Health's 1,350 furloughed workers will be gradual.

"We will do it in a phased-in approach," Sullivan said. "It'll be based on their need here at the system. It's important to know that the total furloughed number is not totally attributed to elective surgeries. There'll be other challenges that we would face given the economic turn in Western New York, the economic turn in health care and the individual patients that have not come into the facility out of fear of Covid transmission and reception."

Sullivan said Catholic Health has lost $35 million a month from lack of elective surgeries, plus an estimated $5 million from people with other issues avoiding the hospitals.

"You are actually safer in a hospital than you are when you go into – I won't mention names – stores, gas stations, all those places that don't have the precautions," Sullivan said.

“We’ve got a lot of patients who are afraid to come into the office or the hospital," said Gibbons of UBMD. "We went out of our way to scare them. All of us together told people, ‘Don’t come in. Unless you’re a high priority you don’t need to be in the emergency room or the hospital.’ We’ve got patients who really do need to be seen and do need to be taken care of. We’re trying very hard to get that message out, that it’s not back to the old normal but it is going to be with us for a while, so delaying needed care right now is not a good idea.”

Boryszak said Catholic Health will use patient escorts to take surgery subjects from the front door to the procedure room, pushing the elevator buttons for them and doing their best to keep them uninfected.

Also, he said a private disinfectant company has just finished cleaning "all the high-traffic, high-touch areas" at Sisters, Mercy and Kenmore Mercy.

Boryszak said at first, the backlog of surgery cases will be prioritized based on their level of urgency.

Gibbons said he believes patients who don't need a hospital or rehab stay will have the best chance.

Kaleida and Erie County Medical Center also are seeking state permission to resume elective surgeries.

"Knowing that we have capacity and can safely resume surgeries, we submitted waiver applications for Oishei Children’s Hospital, Buffalo General Medical Center, Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Southtowns Ambulatory Surgery Center as well as the Millard Fillmore Surgery Center," said a statement from Michael P. Hughes, Kaleida chief of staff.

“This is not a race. We have had numerous productive conversations with the state Department of Health this week about our waivers and we remain confident that we will be able to resume limited elective surgeries at our hospitals and surgery centers soon," Hughes said.

Dr. Brian Murray, chief medical officer at ECMC, estimated that half of the surgeries performed there are outpatient procedures, most of them in a separate ambulatory surgery center.

Only about half of ECMC's intensive care beds were occupied Wednesday.

“Ironically, in anticipation of what happened in New York City, we kind of emptied our hospital,” Murray said. “There are people who are not getting treatment and we have to consider them, too.”

ECMC can resume outpatient procedures within a week of receiving approval.

“Obviously we’re not going to go full bore,” Murray said, “We would start gradually, ramp up and monitor what’s going on.”

Niagara County was one of the 35 counties allowed to resume elective surgeries as of April 28. Mount St. Mary's, a Catholic hospital in Lewiston, reported Tuesday that 61 elective procedures were performed there in the first week of resumption.

Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and Eastern Niagara Hospital in Lockport also resumed elective surgeries last week.

Niagara Falls Memorial spokesman Patrick J. Bradley said 66 procedures have been done there. "They have run the gamut – general surgery, spine surgery, OB/GYN, orthopedic, vascular, urology, etc.," he said.

Eastern Niagara CEO Anne E. McCaffrey said about 50 procedures have been done, all of them at the hospital's outpatient surgery center in the Town of Lockport. Electives surgeries at the hospital itself are expected to resume next week.

McCaffrey said about 15 of the 60 employees furloughed at Eastern Niagara have been brought back to work because of the surgery restart.

In the Southern Tier, Kaleida-affiliated Olean General Hospital resumed elective surgeries last week. Dunkirk-based Brooks-TLC Hospital System began calling patients Monday to schedule procedures, a spokeswoman said.

Brian Durniak, president of UPMC Chautauqua, a hospital in Jamestown, said a few procedures resumed Tuesday.

"Not all patients want to go forward with their procedures, and that's fine," Durniak said.

"It's going to take courage for them to come out to have surgery," Sullivan said. "There has to be individual responsibility. That's the only way we'll beat this..

News Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon contributed to this story.

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