Some ventilation upgrades at B.C. hospitals as health minister addresses COVID-19 outbreaks

The minister of health and his staff have provided some new information on B.C.'s response to COVID-19 outbreaks in hospitals, but many of the details remain hazy, including how many hospitals saw improved ventilation as a result.

Since the start of the pandemic, at least 1,619 people likely caught COVID-19 in the province's hospitals, and at least 274 of them died. The provincial health officer insisted there are fewer outbreaks now due to vaccinations, but also improvements in ventilation systems.

There is growing discussion about the airborne nature of some COVID-19 infections, with Dr. Theresa Tam recently describing aerosol particles drifting like second-hand smoke. But while B.C. has invested in some ventilation upgrades for hospitals, officials say not all of them are due to the pandemic, and the health minister was reluctant to use the word “airborne” in discussing COVID-19 transmission Monday.

"There've been significant upgrades in ventilation (in hospitals) in all six health authorities throughout the province," said Adrian Dix. “The focus has been more in some of our older hospitals, for obvious reasons. The others are built to a higher standard of ventilation and so all of that work has been happening, much of it since the beginning of the pandemic but even before then."

The Ministry of Health provided CTV News with a summary of some of the ventilation measures, pointing out that Lions Gate Hospital, where 147 people got sick with COVID-19 and 18 died in three separate outbreaks, had $226,000 in ventilation upgrades to the ICU and COVID-19 wards, among other areas.

Richmond Hospital racked up $2.1 million in costs responding to COVID-19, which included "a number of interventions such as installation of hoarding, infection prevention and control practices (i.e., enhanced housekeeping), among others." About $397,000 of that was spent on HVAC and ventilation measures.

Island Health insisted its hospitals already have "100 per cent outdoor units that provide adequate ventilation," and while Northern Health, Interior Health and Providence Health Care improved or installed ventilation systems and negative pressure rooms, Fraser Health provided almost no information about what it did.

“Most Fraser Health acute sites meet the necessary standards, and the health authority has implemented temporary measures across acute care sites as needed,” wrote a ministry spokesperson, explaining 200 portable air purifiers were deployed across B.C.’s largest health authority.

1/5 Layering #COVID19 protections is best! Evidence on aerosol spread of the #SARSCoV2 virus shows that expelled virus particles can spread over distances and linger in fine aerosols for periods of time, much like second-hand smoke.

— Dr. Theresa Tam (@CPHO_Canada) November 13, 2021

But some of the hospitals in that area are older, and as Fraser Health fights to conceal reports about what led to outbreaks and what was done in response, the issue of how much airborne spread of the virus could’ve contributed is an open question. At Surrey Memorial Hospital alone, there have been 15 outbreaks, with 147 people likely catching the virus there and 18 of them dying.

CTV News has been trying to speak with health authority doctors responsible for overseeing outbreak response in Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health, but they have not been authorized to speak and the health minister addressed the issue of nosocomial (hospital) transmission in broad strokes instead.

“I give interviews seven days a week,” insisted Dix. “When you have hospitals that are treating people, including people with COVID-19, especially in the pre-vaccination period there was significant outbreaks in our hospitals."

Watch the entire interview with CTV News Vancouver's Penny Daflos and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix here.