Surgical capacity in hospitals across the province will be carefully increased beginning next week to allow more access for patients who have had procedures postponed due to COVID-19.

Shared Health chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa says it's a step towards normal in Manitoba.

"We must begin to carefully increase access to surgery to meet the needs of patients whose procedures can no longer be delayed," Siragusa says.

"This will be a slow and gradual increase while we continue to monitor COVID-19 activity and the staffing demands that remain across medicine and critical care."

Beginning Monday, around 60 surgeries will be added each week at four Winnipeg hospitals. Increases are also expected at rural and northern health care facilities in the coming weeks, the province announced in a release.

Surgical capacities will be reviewed on a weekly basis. Additional increases to surgical slates will be considered in conjunction with analysis of COVID-19 case activity, anticipated hospitalization, and resulting staffing needs.

The announcement was made Friday by Heather Stefanson, Health and Seniors Care Minister.

"Patient safety and avoiding negative outcomes for patients whose procedures have been delayed by COVID-19 are top priorities for our government," Stefanson says.

"With COVID-related hospitalization numbers stabilizing, we are acting on the advice of our clinical experts to take this opportunity to provide access for patients whose conditions have become more urgent during the surgical slowdown caused by the pandemic."

The increased capacity will focus on areas where significant backlog and long waiting lists have accumulated during COVID-19 surgical slow-downs. These include orthopedic, retinal, vascular, and renal procedures.

Ear, nose, and throat procedures and other now-urgent general surgeries will also take place.

In Winnipeg, the Health Sciences Centre (HSC), Misericordia Health Centre, Pan Am Clinic, and Concordia Hospital will see increases to their surgical calendars.

Surgery and endoscopies are expected to begin as soon as next week in Swan River, Dauphin, Neepawa, Minnedosa, and Brandon. Planning for increased surgeries at facilities in the Northern Health Region and Southern Heath-Santé Sud health region is also taking place.

The most urgent cases will be scheduled first. Consideration will also be given to the length of time a patient has waited for their procedure.

While emergency, urgent, and trauma surgeries have continued throughout the pandemic, Siragusa notes thousands of non-urgent and elective surgeries have been postponed. Surgical teams have needed to carefully assess and monitor the ability of each patient to wait for procedures for periods of time ranging from several weeks to months.

All necessary precautions will be taken to protect staff and patients from the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Affected staff have been notified and schedules are being completed. Patients will be contacted directly regarding the scheduling of their surgical procedures according to the clinical priority of the care they need.