Rochester Regional Health and the University of Rochester Medical Center can resume elective surgeries after receiving clearance Wednesday from the state health department.
The state cleared hospitals in 35 counties, including Monroe and all of its adjacent counties, to begin scheduling those operations again, determining that they are “without significant risk of [a] COVID-19 surge in the near term.”
Hospitals across the state had been barred from performing elective surgeries -- some of their most lucrative procedures -- as they braced for a predicted surge in COVID-19 cases.
That surge never quite arrived locally -- at least so far, though local and state leaders said that’s contingent on continued aggressive distancing measures -- and local hospital systems started urging the state to allow them to restart elective procedures.
Previous guidance from the state had said that hospitals needed to be in a county with fewer than 10 new COVID-19 hospital admissions over the previous 10 days. Monroe County is large and dense enough that such a target would be out of reach for the foreseeable future, even though the local health care system had plenty of excess capacity, hospital officials said last week.
This week, the state adjusted the rules, now focusing on overall trends in COVID-19 hospitalizations and bed capacity.
“That was a thoughtful and helpful change,” said Dr. Robert Mayo, the chief medical officer at Rochester Regional Health.
Now, hospitals in more than half of the state’s counties can begin rescheduling elective procedures.
The nearest counties that do not have approval for hospitals to resume those procedures are Erie and Seneca.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said the region did not have the downward trajectory in COVID-19 hospitalizations necessary to qualify for resumption.
Erie County has more than twice the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths as Monroe.
In Seneca County, there are no hospitals, so the resumption of elective procedures is largely moot.
“The effect for the Seneca County residents would just be their ability to have needed elective surgery if indicated at a facility in one of the surrounding counties,” said the county’s public health director, Vickie Swinehart.
Rochester Regional Health and URMC serve a multicounty region of the state. All of their facilities are now cleared to resume elective outpatient procedures, their respective chief medical officers said.
Still, their operations are not back to normal.
“We’re not fully open for business, but we’re open for safe business,” said URMC chief medical officer Dr. Michael Apostolakos.
“Obviously, we’re going to triage by the needs of the patient, so we’ll start with the most urgent procedures and move on from there,” he said.
Some dental procedures that require hospitalization are among those that can resume under the new guidance, said URMC spokesperson Karen Black.
Apostolakos and Mayo said it could take their hospital systems months to work through the backlog of patients whose procedures have been delayed.
In the meantime, they said hospitals will take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus among patients and staff.
Waiting rooms are being redesigned to keep patients further apart. Masks will be required inside the hospitals, and some patients will be tested for the coronavirus before undergoing an operation.
Hospital leaders credited the local community for changing their daily lives to help suppress the spread of the virus.
“It’s very noteworthy, the way the community has really come together and helped us flatten this curve,” Mayo said.