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Chattanooga's major hospitals will suspend elective surgeries to preserve vital health resources and save space for an anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization.

In a joint statement released Friday afternoon, CHI Memorial, Erlanger Health System and Parkridge Health System said the decision was made in "the best interest of the community" and based on recommendations from the American College of Surgeons, the surgeon general, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and other leading industry groups and officials.

Dr. Robert Maxwell, a critical care and general surgeon at University Surgical Associates, said in a written statement that there are multiple reasons for the decision.

"Canceling elective surgery reduces the human interaction of potentially asymptomatic carriers infecting healthy people just by coming to the hospital. Additionally, anesthesia teams have the highest incidence of COVID infection amongst health care workers, because of the exposure they receive when placing someone under anesthesia. Limiting this risk of asymptomatic exposure during elective surgery is imperative," said Maxwell, whose practice provides Erlanger's surgical services.

Maxwell said the move will also preserve personal protective equipment used during nonessential surgery for use during a COVID-19 patient surge and allow the hospitals to convert operating rooms to intensive care units if patient numbers skyrocket.

There is no cure for COVID-19, but 80% of people who are infected will have mild symptoms and overcome the illness on their own. However, about 20% of people infected by coronavirus will need supportive care from a hospital. The nation's hospitals collectively have about a million beds, with 100,000 for critical care patients, but often those beds for the sickest patients are mostly filled, according to the Associated Press.

"If we flatten the curve out by implementing common sense restrictions, I feel very comfortable saying your surgeon will be more than happy to reschedule your surgery when it is safe again. Surgeons don't like this situation anymore than anybody else, but we must do what's safest to stop the spread of this deadly disease," Maxwell said.

All three area health systems said they are working with their surgical leadership to accommodate the new recommendation in a manner that is "least disruptive to patients" scheduled for surgery and to meet the need for availability of beds should the need arise.

Starting Saturday, CHI Memorial temporarily postponed elective procedures at its Chattanooga, Hixson and Georgia campuses. Memorial defined elective surgery as "treatment that can be delayed." For example, cosmetic procedures are considered elective.

Parkridge spokesman Michael Furgeson said the hospital will postpone elective surgeries "effective immediately" and that it is following CMS guidance for postponing elective surgeries, which include carpal tunnel release, colonoscopies, cataract surgeries and endoscopies. The hospital will be notifying patients through hospital scheduling and the physician scheduling procedure, Furgeson said.

In the statement, Erlanger officials said the hospital will "implement their plans based on their unique internal operations and circumstances." However, Erlanger did not respond to Times Free Press questions asking for more details, including how the hospital defined elective procedures and how patients are being notified.

Hospital officials said they anticipate the temporary delay will aid in efforts to protect patients, preserve staff, personal protective equipment, and patient care supplies and to expand available hospital capacity.

"We applaud the forward-thinking decision of our respective medical staff leadership," the statement said. "Their patient relationships run deep and they have a strong sense of responsibility to consider the best practice for sustaining our community resources for the duration of this global pandemic."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@ timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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