Northern B.C. hospitals avoided the first wave of COVID-19. Now they are struggling to keep up

·3 min read

COVID-19 patients from northern British Columbia are being sent to Victoria for care, as both case counts and hospitalizations in the Northern Health region surge to unprecedented levels.

Since mid-November, northern B.C. has seen a sharp spike in positive test results, with the number of new COVID-19 cases rising from 96 between Nov. 1 and 15 to 343 between Nov. 16 and 30.

The number of patients requiring hospitalization, meanwhile, is happening at rates higher than anywhere else in the province. With just six per cent of the province's population, Northern Health patients now account for as many as 20 per cent of the critical care patients on any given day — and health-care providers are feeling the strain.

"I think the last time I had any days off was August," said Dr. Lovedeep Khara, an intensive care doctor at the University Hospital of Northern B.C. in Prince George, where the majority of the region's COVID-19 patients in need of intensive care wind up.

The current situation in northern B.C. is a sharp contrast to the spring and summer, when the region went weeks without any new infections, or even spring, when there were only one or two new cases at a time.

Now, Khara said, hospital staff are going "at full speed," foregoing holidays and regular downtime to handle the influx of new patients. Adding to the complexity of the situation is the fact COVID patients remain in intensive care for days or weeks at a time, requiring specialized teams, rooms and equipment to keep everyone safe from infection.

"Everybody is pretty strained and stressed," said Dr. Simon Rose, another ICU specialist in Prince George. "Not just doctors and nurses, but support and cleaning staff."

Near-surge capacity

Northern B.C. has 41 critical care beds, 24 of which were occupied on Nov. 30. But what's more important, health-care workers say, is the number of people available to staff them.

Fort St. John, for example, is able to look after patients with relatively mild symptoms, but once they need a ventilator or ICU care, they will likely be sent to Prince George where there are more doctors and respiratory therapists to support them. And this past week, at least two patients were sent to Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria to try to take some of the strain off hospitals in the north.

Courtenay Kelliher, who is in charge of Northern Health's pandemic response, said health-care workers in the region are reaching their limits and expressed hope cases will start to decline soon.

"A surge should be like a tidal wave," she said. "It comes in and it goes out, and you hope not to see a big one like that again."

Source: B.C. Ministry of Health/Graphic by CBC
Source: B.C. Ministry of Health/Graphic by CBC

But the fear, Kelliher said, is that even though they've been operating at near-capacity for weeks, it's still unclear whether the wave has peaked or if it will continue to grow.

Adding to the stress is what some health-care workers view as a growing backlash to not just public safety measures, but the very notion of whether COVID-19 is even a concern.

"When you get to the end of your day ... and post after post and article after article is people complaining that the guidelines are too much and the orders are too much and this is a conspiracy … it leaves you feeling, just, defeated," Kelliher said.

"We went from in the springtime where the public held these pot-clanking parades and honking parades [for] frontline workers … And now it's almost been a 180 where there's sort of a hostility towards us."

"It just adds to that emotional exhaustion that already exists."

To hear more on how hospitals in the north are handling the surge in COVID-19 patients, and how it is impacting healthcare professionals in the region, tap the audio below.

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