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BJC halts elective surgeries after COVID patient surge that is 'beyond anything we’ve seen thus far'

BJC said their “nurses, staff and facilities are stretched to their limits.” Moving staff members off elective surgeries will allow them to focus on other areas.

ST. LOUIS — A rapid rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations has led BJC HealthCare to postpone elective procedures starting Thursday, Jan. 6.

Hospital officials said it was a difficult but necessary decision. There were more than 500 people hospitalized for COVID-19 across BJC’s system Tuesday.

“This is beyond anything we’ve seen thus far in the pandemic,” a spokesperson wrote in a Wednesday morning media alert.

BJC said their “nurses, staff and facilities are stretched to their limits.” Moving those staff members off of elective procedures will allow them to focus on other areas of the hospital with more urgent needs, BJC said.

Infectious Disease Specialist, Dr. Hilary Babcock says this would free up beds and free up staff. 

As for procedures considered 'urgent', they'll continue.

"There are lots of procedures that cannot safely be delayed, those will still be ongoing and emergency procedures, of course, would still be ongoing. Most pediatric procedures are not elective and those will likely be ongoing," Dr. Babcock explains. 

Dr. Clay Dunagan, BJC HealthCare’s Chief Clinical Officer, said this comes at a time where the contagious omicron variant is also infecting staff.

"BJC has about 31,000 employees and as of today, we had almost 1,000 people out with COVID-related reasons," he said.

Dr. Alex Garza with the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force said this is enough to impact operations. 

The temporary pause will continue until further notice.

Those with upcoming elective procedures will be contacted by a medical team staff member.

“This decision was not made lightly and reflects our current challenge as cases continue to rise and resources continue to be strained,” a BJC spokesperson said.

This is not the first time BJC has put elective procedures on hold during the pandemic. Similar shifts were made in March 2020 when the pandemic began and again in November 2020 as a new wave of cases began.

"This was actually very helpful last time and we anticipate that it will be helpful, this time as well," said Dr. Babcock.

On Wednesday, the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force – which includes BJC hospitals – reported 1,114 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which is a record number.

Also on Wednesday, SSM Health announced some elective procedures will be postponed, but this wouldn't affect all elective procedures. It would be on a case-by-case basis.

5 On Your Side asked Dr. Babcock when she expects they'll likely resume elective procedures. When the last two pauses happened, they started back up in about eight weeks.

"Once case numbers turn around and start dropping and we are able to get back on a more normal flow in the hospital, then we absolutely want to, of course, get all these patients scheduled rapidly back in to get these procedures completed," said Dr. Babcock. "I really think that community has a big role to play and they really can help us by helping to decrease the numbers."

Over the last couple of weeks amid the omicron surge, some hospitals are making adjustments, too. Beginning Wednesday, St. Luke’s Hospital is joining SSM and BJC in limiting visitors.