VICTORIA -- British Columbia's health minister says 95 per cent of surgeries that were postponed during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic have been completed, partly through a more efficient use of resources.

Adrian Dix says 15,373 patients were informed their surgeries would be cancelled, and the focus has been on urgent cases as well as patients who had waited twice the amount of time that was recommended for their surgery.

He said the province opened new and unused operating rooms, added hours on weekdays and weekends, and also hired more staff including surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists as part of its plan to catch up on procedures.

Dix said wait lists decreased from their peak last May to the point that they are now below levels at this time last year, when hospital beds were closed in anticipation of an influx of COVID-19 patients.

Just over 84,000 patients are currently waiting for surgery, a decrease of 10 per cent compared with last February.

Dix said the decision to postpone thousands of non-urgent surgeries over one weekend last year caused patients added anxiety and he heard from many of them.

“It was, I would say, one of the most significant and difficult decisions that I've ever been part of and It was the right decision then and from this vantage point, it was also the right decision.”

Michael Marchbank, who led the province's surgical renewal plan and is a retired CEO of the Fraser Health Authority, said the traditional slowdown in surgeries was reduced last summer.

Many of the surgeons recruited to work in B.C. have come from outside the province, he said on Friday.

He said patients waiting for complex surgeries involving cancer, neurosurgery and heart conditions need to be prioritized for both their physical and mental health. The wait list for urgent procedures has been reduced by 12 per cent, he said, calling the surgical uptake “unprecedented” in his career.

Overall, 1,167 new health-care professionals have been hired, including 44 surgeons, 54 anesthesiologists, and hundreds of nurses, including 254 who work with patients recovering from surgery.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2021.