Fourteen patients in critical care were transferred from the Northern Health region to hospitals in southern B.C. over the Thanksgiving weekend, as unvaccinated COVID-19 patients overwhelm hospitals in the North and strain the entire system.
The rising cases and serious illnesses in Northern Health have resulted in 55 patients in need of critical care being flown from their home communities to Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland over the last several weeks.
Of the 43 sick with COVID-19, all but one were unvaccinated.
“We know how stressful that is for families,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said today.
There are currently 833 active cases in Northern Health. Even with the transfers, 22 of the region’s 40 base critical care beds are taken by COVID-19 patients.
The region with just six per cent of the province’s population accounts for 16 per cent of B.C.’s current active cases and, including those who have been flown elsewhere, nearly a quarter of its critical care patients.
Henry said she is considering all ways to bolster vaccination rates in the North, where as few as 52 per cent of eligible adults have been fully vaccinated in the Peace River South region including Dawson Creek.
“Hospitals are pushed to the limit across the North,” said Henry. “It is so, so hard for us to see a preventable illness now impacting people across the province.”
Vaccinations are the single most important factor in spread right now, Henry said. Last week, independent modelling showed communities with 70-per-cent vaccination rates have over three times more cases than communities with vaccination rates over 90 per cent.
B.C. lifted most public health restrictions over the summer after 70 per cent of people had been vaccinated, but before many young people were even eligible for a second dose.
Early in September, Henry reinstated restrictions on social gatherings and events in the North, where the vast majority of transmission in the region was taking place.
But low vaccination rates and lax public health restrictions have left many communities vulnerable to the Delta variant, now dominant in B.C.
Vaccine mandates for staff in long-term care and assisted living also went into effect today, and a similar mandate will take effect for all health-care workers and staff in health-care facilities across the province later this month.
The public health orders brought vaccination among staff in long-term care and assisted living up by six percentage points to 96 per cent provincewide, leaving about 2,000 workers unvaccinated before the deadline. In Northern Health, just 89 per cent of staff have at least one shot.
Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix urged health-care workers and all British Columbians to get vaccinated.
“It is not too late,” said Dix.
Communities with high case rates, many in the North and Interior, will likely be prioritized for vaccinations for kids five to 11, who are expected to become eligible in the coming weeks, Henry said.
Decisions have not yet been made on how kids will be prioritized, but it will not be a primarily age-based rollout as was done for adults in the spring and summer, Henry said.
The BC Vaccine Card program will also not apply to children under 12, even when they become eligible for vaccines.
Asked what to expect into the fall and winter, Henry said, “I think masking is going to need to be with us for a while longer.”
Today she expanded the indoor mask mandate to children five and over, in line with the expansion of the school mask mandate.
“We need to ensure we’re using all the layers of protection we have available,” said Henry.
“It is not too late to make the right choice for your own health and to protect your community.”
Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee