South Jersey health care systems plan to begin elective surgeries now that statewide restrictions on those procedures have been lifted, but how quickly patients will come and how safe they will feel to be hospitalized remain unanswered questions.
Top health care officials are encouraging patients awaiting surgery and outpatients alike not to fear entering hospitals or medical office and outpatient surgery centers, saying every precaution has been taken to make them safe.
Hospitals and outpatient surgical centers resumed elective procedures May 26 with the most urgent surgical cases. The state has mandated all surgical patients be tested for the coronavirus prior to a procedure and that patients also be quarantined for three days before a procedure.
Gov. Phil Murphy imposed the ban during the statewide pandemic emergency so health care workers could focus on treating coronavirus patients.
With the number of COVID-19 patients declining in hospitals, health care executives say they will have the available staffing needed for elective surgeries and will continue taking major sanitizing steps to protect both staff, patients and visitors as the healthcare industry returns to a new normal.
“We are planning for the immediate return of elective procedures so that we are ready to meet the needs of our communities as soon as it is safe to do so. We are coordinating this effort with the New Jersey Department of Health ,to make sure that we take the necessary steps to safely return to our regular surgical services schedule,” said Inspira Health President and CEO John DiAngelo.
Meanwhile, visitor restrictions and monitoring of those coming into South Jersey hospitals and outpatient medical centers are expected to continue.
Some examples of what the public can expect in the new normal in health care that aims to limit exposure to others who may be ill:
- More virtual visits with doctors, especially specialists
- Waiting outside in a vehicle until called into a medical office for an appointment
- Health screening for visitors to a hospital or when visiting other medical facilities
- Masks required of all visitors while staff inside all medical facilities will wear even more protective equipment
- No-visitor policies in most hospitals in the near future with some exceptions for maternity patient support and serious non-COVID illnesses for which there will be extremely limited visitation,
- Social distancing guidelines in emergency room waiting areas or other waiting areas and possible separation of more ill patients in some settings
Dr. Anthony J. Mazzarelli, co-president and CEO of Cooper University Health Care, said staff have learned a great deal about COVID-19 and also has safely treated thousands of non-COVID patients at the same time the past few months and continues to take every precaution necessary to keep our patients and staff healthy.
“Therefore, we encourage everyone to keep their appointments and not to delay their needed health care out of fear of COVID-19,” he said.
Brian Sweeney, interim president of Jefferson Health New Jersey, said what is unclear about resuming elective surgeries is how quickly the demand will come back.
“This is a key question for all providers. We don’t know how ready patients are to come back for surgeries and some could be at risk for their health by waiting, so we want to reassure them we are ready, open and have plenty of a capacity and staffing. We’re doing everything we can to ensure cleanliness with a major focus on quality and safety and better testing for COVID-19.”
Sweeney said if the demand for elective surgery is great at Jefferson hospitals, some procedures could be scheduled evenings or on weekends if necessary. Extended office hours for wellness visits with doctors also is an option at Virtua Health if the need arises.
And and while some doctors plan to resume in-office hours at outpatient medical facilities by June, the virtual tele-visit option may be here to stay for patients with minor health issues or those who want to avoid possible exposure to illnesses at those offices.
“COVID-19 has accelerated the expansion of telemedicine visits inside and outside of hospitals,” Sweeney explained.
The practice of remaining outside a medical building until notified by staff to come inside was instituted by many doctors when the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up in March.
Regarding mask-wearing, DiAngelo said it is difficult to predict if this safety measure will become permanent. “But don’t be surprised when you are asked to wear a mask in the months ahead,” he added.
At Inspira hospitals visitors will have their temperature checked upon entering and this may also occur at other hospital or health centers. At Cooper and Virtua hospitals, visitors will be given hand sanitizer to use and a mask to wear if they come without one.
Virtua Health already was planning to test all patients for COVD-19 before they undergo any surgical or other medical procedure, said Dr. Reginald Blaber, Virtua executive vice president and chief clinical officer.
He also said said he looks forward to the time when its facilities can once again host educational classes, communal meals and opportunities for families to meet and admire new babies in our maternity units.
“In the next month, we intend to bring many of our offerings back on line,” Blaber added. “This will continue into the summer, while we also monitor and respond to the trajectory of the coronavirus. Safety has always driven our decision-making and will continue to do so.”
“That said and although new admissions of COVID-19 patients are slowly declining, it would be premature to ease our visitor restrictions at this moment. We recognize the emotional toll these guidelines have on our patients and their loved ones, but safety must remain our top priority.”