Nearly 500 patients in Saskatchewan died while waiting for surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic, an increase of nearly 100 from before the health-care system was overburdened by infected patients, government data shows.

During a provincial emergency operations centre briefing in November, government officials stated the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) postponed roughly 26,000 surgeries between March 15, 2020 and Oct. 9, 2021, when the health-care system was grappling with the pandemic.

Government data, obtained using a freedom of information request, states 479 wait-listed surgeries were cancelled during that same period because the patients waiting for procedures died.

379 died between March 15, 2018 and Oct. 9, 2019, before the pandemic began.

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A note included with the data states that a cancellation due to death does not necessarily mean the patient died because they did not get the surgery. It says 63 per cent of patients who died between 2018 and 2019 and 57 per cent of the patients between the 2020 and 2021 dates were waiting for cataract surgery or hip and/or knee replacements, which the note states are non-fatal conditions.

That means 141 people died waiting for surgery in the earlier period and 206 during the pandemic.

Dr. Dennis Kendel, a health policy consultant, said many factors can contribute to deaths.

But he said there’s “absolutely no doubt that some of those approximately 100 additional deaths were caused by a delay in surgery,” though he added it is difficult to know exactly how many.

Having a surgery on the waitlist doesn’t mean the procedure isn’t necessary, it just means it isn’t an emergency situation, Kendel explained – like when someone suffers life-threatening injuries in a car crash and medical personnel scramble to save their life.

Some wait-listed surgeries may be directed at quality-of-life issues, like cataract replacement, but many are needed to keep someone alive.

Using kidney transplants as an example, Kendel said someone can survive having dialysis three times a week, but there is a point where surgery becomes lifesaving.

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Kendel said there’s no doubt patients waiting for a transplant die waiting.

“(They) might have done infinitely better if they got the transplant, he said.

“It isn’t that you die that week. It’s just that you’re on dialysis longer.”

That’s what scares Jessica Bailey.

Her kidneys are failing — and nearly failed. She said doctors tell her she has less than one per cent kidney function left.

The SHA CEO said it might take a year and a half for orthopedic surgeries to resume. A patient in dire need of a kidney says she won’t be alive if she needs to wait that long.

Supplied by Melanie Bailey

She had a surgery booked last September but the SHA cancelled it shortly after confirming it, in order to reassign staff to deal with the overcrowded intensive care units (ICUs) and emergency rooms (ERs) struggling with Delta variant-infected patients.

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She called the additional 100 deaths “a pretty harsh number.”

“The odds are not in my favour,” she told Global News.

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Saskatchewan NDP leader Ryan Meili said stronger action from the government could have prevented some of the deaths.

“The premier took the summer off, ignored modelling that showed that we were about to face a deadly Delta wave and revoked every public health measures he could,” Meili said in an interview.

“And as a result, we saw the worst fourth wave in the entire country.”

Meili called for a plan to protect the health-care system, saying the provincial government needs to do everything it can to protect hospitals and other services, like cancer screening.

On Wednesday, Premier Scott Moe announced the government is extending current public health measures, which includes mandatory masks, vaccine passports and mandatory isolation for those infected.

He also stated he would not impose gathering restrictions, saying evidence from other jurisdictions shows they aren’t preventing the highly transmissible Omicron variant from spreading.

Kendel said policies that limit the interaction between people will help prevent the virus from spreading, which will decrease the burden on the health-care system.

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Global News requested an interview or comment from Health Minister Paul Merriman.

A response from a spokesperson did not address the deaths.

“Services that had been reduced started resuming normal levels in early November and continued to increase throughout the month,” executive council media relations director Matthew Glover wrote.

“Then in early December, we announced a plan to begin addressing the backlog built up during the pandemic.”

The response included a link to the press release.

The government’s plan involves increasing ICU capacity across the province by expanding operating room hours and making greater use of regional surgical sites and private clinics. The statement says it will increase the amount of permanent ICU beds in the province, from 79 to 110, and increase the number of nurses.

Kendel said the most important factor was how many staff are available, because the “system runs on strained capacity at the best of times.”

“You don’t want to people pay a lot of people to just stand by and do nothing,” he said, “so we sort of staff the health-care system in a way that we get by each day, but we don’t have a lot of reserve (capacity).”

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He also said he saw no problem utilizing private clinics, so long as patients can’t pay their way to the front of the line, which he said would be morally wrong.

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Moving forward, Kendel said the government needs to investigate the full effects of the surgery slowdown, to not only determine how many of the additional deaths were a result of the delay but also to figure out how many more people are waiting for procedures.

The delay made the wait list even longer but it also pushed back other medical services, meaning some people likely do need surgery but haven’t yet been able to access the services they need to know that.

“I’m aware some people personally who fell ill and should have probably had an MRI or CT scan done very urgently,” he said.

He told Global News they’re now essentially on a wait list to get onto the wait list.

Bailey is in that situation.

She did have a surgery recently, but not the one for which she was hoping.

The tube through which she receives dialysis wasn’t working properly so she had a surgery to replace it.

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The procedure was only supposed to take a day but there were complications.

“They nicked an artery and about three litres of blood rushed into my abdominal wall,” she said.

She spent five weeks in hospital recovering.

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That gave her a first-hand look at how busy staff are and how overburdened the health-care system currently is.

She now needs to recover more so she’s healthy enough to be added to the transplant list again.

She’s in constant contact with transplant staff and she said the nurses were just redeployed back to the kidney transplant program.

“That was already a month behind schedule in regards to… what the government is saying they’re doing and what they’re actually doing,” she said.

Bailey said she’s in favour of the government imposing gathering restrictions because it will ease the load on health-care workers.

She also said the SHA needs to get through surgeries quicker.

“Maybe the government should be looking for a bit more help if this crisis is going to continue,” she told Global News.

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“The action needs to happen sooner than later because I’m at my bitter end here.”

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