Critically ill COVID-19 patients in B.C.'s north are being flown as far away as Vancouver Island to receive care because local hospitals no longer have enough capacity, provincial officials said Tuesday.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said a total of 12 patients have been transferred to Prince George, Vancouver and Nanaimo because the Northern Health region is badly "overstretched" by a high rate of positive cases.
"Clearly, this is less than ideal. It will be difficult for those patients and their families and their loved ones, but these are necessary steps," Dix said during a news conference.
"We expect the pressure on the critical care in the north until vaccination rates go up and cases in hospitals go down."
Northern Health is facing a severe health-care staffing shortage.
Dix said last week the workforce challenges have been exacerbated in the region — which extends from Quesnel, Valemount and Prince Rupert north to the Yukon border — as it deals with the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the province, and that recruitment and retainment are traditionally more difficult there in any case.
There are 41 cases per 100,000 residents in Northern Health, more than double the rate of the next hardest-hit region — Interior Health.
"These exceptionally high case rates are translating into hospitalizations and putting significant pressure on ICU capacity and health workers. The north is being overstretched by COVID-19 and overstretched by the fact we're not meeting ... our vaccination goals in Northern Health."
Only 5 of 20 emergency nursing positions staffed
Only five of 20 permanent registered nursing jobs are filled on the emergency room rotation in Fort St. John, according to a statement on Saturday. The gaps mean other nurses are being diverted to the shift, placing further stress on other rotations.
"It's an unbelievable situation," Peace River North MLA Dan Davies told CBC, adding that he fears the region is on its way to a crisis similar to that in Alberta.
"Let's be honest, I think we're somewhat heading down that road right now. When you're looking at five nurses covering 20 spots, you're looking at one nurse covering a shift at a regional hospital. That's worrisome.
"We need resources, boots on the ground, right now."
Alberta's health-care system has been pushed to the brink of collapse in recent days. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been soaring for weeks, leading to the mass cancellation of surgeries and doctors being briefed on how to decide, if necessary, who gets life-saving help and who does not.
In B.C., Northern Health said it is working to hire new nurses and fill the empty roles, using $6.4 million in government funding to help — though Dix and Davies said it's proven challenging to get nurses in the region to stay long-term.
"We've done well at recruiting, from my understanding, but we're not retaining nurses," said Davies, calling for an independent audit to examine why local nurses keep leaving.
"This is something that's been going on for years, but it's the worst it's ever been."
Notification system coming for schools across B.C.
Also on Monday, officials announced the province will be bringing in a new system by the end of the week to notify families when their children have been exposed to COVID-19 in a school setting.
"Our teams have recognized that parents do need an authoritative source to know what's happening in their children's schools," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Henry also addressed the need for pregnant people, people who are looking to get pregnant or people who are breastfeeding to get vaccinated. She said 40 pregnant people have been in the ICU with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
She offered the same advice for people who think they don't need to get vaccinated because they've already had COVID-19.
"You still need to get your vaccine," she said. "We have looked at data from across Canada, from around the world ... one of the things that we know is that the antibody levels after infection can be very varied — you may not develop that long-term immunity [during your illness]."
B.C. confirmed 1,692 new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend, or an average of 564 cases a day.
Eleven more people died from the disease over three days.
A total of 307 people were in hospital, with 156 in intensive care. Dix said 138 of those people in the ICU were not vaccinated.