Otherwise healthy younger patients are showing up in ICUs as COVID’s third wave strains B.C.’s capacity.
Dr. Gerald Da Roza says its discouraging to watch Royal Columbian Hospital’s intensive care unit filling with younger, sicker COVID-19 patients just as vaccination programs ramp up.
“Before the variant part hit, I think a lot of us were on an upswing in terms of our optimism, you know we were turning the corner,” said Da Roza, head of medicine at Royal Columbian.
However, the “third wave” of COVID-19 infections with thousands of new cases diagnosed over the Easter weekend, means more people are ending up in hospitals and admissions are straining critical-care staff.
“It is discouraging for those of us involved in this sort of care of COVID patients and putting so much effort into it, that if you see a situation where people are flouting the rules, or just ignoring them. It’s a bit demoralizing,” Da Roza said.
The workload hasn’t hit a point the hospital can’t handle, but Royal Columbian is at a “pressure point where we’re using a lot of our resources” to care for younger patients, with numbers rising steadily over the past couple of weeks.
“The reports I have this morning are that our ward cohort of COVID patients is kind of at the highest that we’ve seen in the past year,” Da Roza said.
Independent health modellers estimate B.C.’s ICUs could hit capacity by mid-May unless there are tougher restrictions to change in the trajectory of new COVID-19 infections, particularly with the more virulent variants taking hold.
Da Roza at Royal Columbian was one of a handful of critical-care doctors who, over the weekend, sounded a warning over rising numbers of alarmingly young patients showing up in ICU.
On Friday, Dr. Kevin Mcleod, an internist at Lion’s Gate Hospital in North Vancouver, Tweeted that hospitals had become “much busier” over the previous 72 hours with “significant increases in COVID cases” and in otherwise healthy young people requiring critical care.
“This will go very badly if people don’t wise up,” Mcleod said in a subsequent message.
Hospitalizations due to COVID rose to 328 as of Tuesday, the provincial health officer said, with 96 cases in ICUs.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday that intensive care units were at about 75 per cent of their base capacity, with 130 vacant beds ready for use, along with “surge capacity” of an additional 360 beds.
“That doesn’t mean things are in any way other than very challenging in acute care right now,” Dix said during Tuesday’s briefing, but “our teams are prepared and if you need hospital care in B.C., it is there for you.”
ICU admissions have exceeded the highest B.C. has experienced in this pandemic, and “by May, we will have exceeded the hospital capacity,” said modelling expert Sarah Otto, a professor in zoology at the University of B.C.
“Things may slow down, following the closure of (indoor dining at) restaurants,” Otto said. “We’ll have to update our models if that slowdown is substantial.”
After a year of the pandemic, health care workers are also at risk of burning out, warned Val Avery, president of the Health Sciences Association, the union that represents 20,000 specialized technicians such as respiratory therapists and lab technicians.
“Our folks are going to be there,” Avery said, working overtime and extra shifts. “It’s a question of how long this goes on and , you know, the kind of exposure these people are getting to stress levels that are incredibly unusual.”
Da Roza said hospitals have seen fewer patients older than 70 hospitalized in this wave of the pandemic, which is evidence that vaccinations are working to reduce transmission.
However, to Da Roza and other doctors, it seems that virus variants “are both more easily transmissible and they seem to cause more severe disease in younger and healthier people who have not had a chance to be vaccinated yet.”
“What I need is just for people to get vaccinated when they’re offered the opportunity to do so,” Da Roza said. “The other thing is, I would ask people to just be vigilant and comply with the recommendations and restrictions for a few more months.”
With a file from Katie De Rosa, Postmedia