VANCOUVER -- Elective surgeries will begin again in B.C. in less than two weeks, but recovering the thousands of surgeries that were cancelled because of COVID-19 might take years.

Health Minster Adrian Dix, Premier John Horgan and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlined the province's plan to bring elective surgeries back Thursday, after thousands of appointments were cancelled or postponed beginning in mid-March. 

"This was a very difficult decision for us to make, the right decision to make, but as we made it we were mindful that these were not just numbers on spreadsheets, these were human beings," Horgan said. 

According to the health ministry, about 30,000 surgeries were lost in that time. About 14,000 had to be postponed and an estimated 16,000 that would have normally been scheduled from the waitlist were put off. Additionally, thousands of people who may have been added to the waitlist weren't getting referrals from surgeons over the past several weeks.

Health officials said B.C. will need to make changes to how it offers surgeries in order to catch up. 

"As this pandemic reached us in British Columbia we recognized that we needed to take extraordinary measures to ensure that we could provide safe care, both for people who had COVID-19 in our health care system, but also for those who needed health care in other sectors," Henry said. 

Henry explained that when B.C. was seeing an increase in community spread, every surgical patient had to be treated as though they likely had COVID-19. But now that the virus curve has flattened in the province, protocols can change. 

"We no longer have to assume that (a surgical patient) has this," she said. "We can now safely assume that most patients do not have COVID-19."

The first step, health officials explained, is contacting patients starting Thursday to confirm they are willing and ready to have their surgery. Elective surgical services are scheduled to begin again on May 18 and by mid-June, officials hope all operating facilities will be working at maximum capacity. 

As well, the pre-surgical screening process will include checking for symptoms and risk factors of COVID-19. If symptoms are detected, the surgery might be rescheduled.

"Even before COVID-19, people had to be well for their surgery," Henry said. 

"That's why when you have your surgery scheduled, make sure that you're staying very close to home, that you're not out mixing and mingling, if you can help it because we want to make sure everybody's well enough to have their surgeries as scheduled."

Adding new funding and recruiting staff to manage the increased demand will also be necessary. Health officials said they are looking to offer all existing, re-instated and graduating nurses regular permanent employment. Currently, there are about 1,073 operating room nurses in the province who either work part time or casually. 

Surgical capacity will also need to be boosted by extending operating room hours and adding services on the weekends. New or unused operating rooms will be opened where possible. 

If all those strategies are put in place, which officials estimate will cost $250 million in the first year, it could take 17 to 24 months for the health care system to catch up. But the ministry cautioned that the timeline could change, especially if there are future surges in COVID-19 cases.