COVID-19: High case counts have B.C. health minister bracing for impact on hospitals

Vaccinations will help relieve the burden on B.C. hospitals at some point, but “we’re not at a level yet where that’s going to happen,” Adrian Dix.

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Provincial hospitals are prepared to receive higher numbers of COVID-19 patients, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Wednesday, not that he is comfortable with the situation.

“We’re both prepared for it and very concerned about it,” Dix said, considering that B.C.’s experience is that five per cent of people who contract COVID-19 wind up in hospital. “Obviously, if we keep seeing high case loads, it’s just by definition, five per cent of 1,000 (cases in a day) is more than five per cent of 750, so we’ve got to be prepared and we will be prepared for more hospitalizations.”

Dix spoke Wednesday in response to the alarm raised by physicians about a discouraging increase in numbers of COVID-19 patients reaching their ICUs, which is beginning to stress the overall system.

On Wednesday, Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry reported that 330 COVID-19 patients were in hospital, an increase of two from Tuesday, with 105 in ICU, a jump of nine from Tuesday.


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For Dr. Gerald Da Roza, head of medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital, rising case counts have been a demoralizing turn of events just when more substantial supplies of COVID-19 vaccines have begun to arrive.

And while hospitals aren’t hitting overall ICU capacity, Da Roza said there is a more limited capacity for the highest level of respiratory care known as extra corporeal membrane oxygenation or ECMO. It’s a treatment that isn’t available in every ICU, in the Lower Mainland only Royal Columbian, Vancouver General and St. Paul’s hospitals offer it, and Da Roza said they are seeing patient transfers specifically for the therapy.

“There’s (only) a certain number that you can do,” Da Roza said.

As of this week, cases hadn’t risen to levels his hospital couldn’t handle, “the bigger concern is that with the Easter weekend, I think everyone’s just crossing their fingers and holding their breath” for the possible consequences of gatherings for the occasion.

Dix said health officials have been planning since last September to add “surge capacity” for COVID-19 cases.

“Our acute-care doctors are absolutely right to be concerned,” Dix said. “We are prepared for the situation, that doesn’t make it a good situation. We’re not happy to have (330) COVID patients in hospital, because it affects everything.”

Overall, Dix said B.C. has 538 intensive-care-unit beds in hospitals around the province, 76 per cent of which were occupied, with an additional 237 “surge” beds.


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Over the past week, the number of ICU beds available has wavered from 120 as of March 31 to 150 on April 6, “so that bounces around,” Dix said, and the ministry has the ability to make even more beds available for ICU use.

Dix said B.C. still has the Vancouver Convention Centre available as an overflow hospital, which was established as a 500-bed facility, with 250 of those provided under an arrangement with the Canadian Red Cross.

“There’s absolutely no expectation of its use, but rightly or wrongly, I decided to keep that possibility,” Dix said, “on the advice of our team of course.”

However, the province is also counting on its vaccination plan to curb that hospital demand, based on B.C.’s experience with the vaccination of more vulnerable populations. There have only been two COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term-care homes in recent months, with no fatalities, so “clearly we’re making some progress in some areas.”

Eventually vaccines are going to affect (transmission), but we’re not at a level yet where that’s going to happen,” Dix said.

In the meantime, however, Dix didn’t signal that B.C. is prepared to take stricter measures to control community spread of COVID-19 beyond the recent closure of indoor dining in restaurants and a reminder that people shouldn’t engage in non-essential travel.

With transmission of COVID 19 happening indoors in people’s homes and in workplaces, Dix said, “you can’t enforce your way out of transmission of COVID-19.”


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