B.C. health officials acknowledge typical heat wave response 'not sufficient' for deadly heat dome

The province’s top health officials are acknowledging the typical response to a heat wave wasn’t enough to meet the record-breaking temperatures and deadly conditions of the heat dome that settled over British Columbia for several days in late June.

At their first press conference since the mass casualty event, B.C.’s top doctor and health minister insisted that recommendations from the last deadly heat wave more than a decade ago were followed, but said the severity of the weather event was unexpected.

“The usual response we have based on what happened in 2009 clearly was not sufficient to reach everybody in this heat wave, for sure,” acknowledged Dr. Bonnie Henry of the measures implemented, which included the opening of cooling centres and calls to drink more water and stay cool.

“We're not a province that has experienced routine heat waves, unlike places like Toronto…and certainly we've never, ever experienced something like what happened this past week."

When CTV News asked whether suggested procedures for calling a “heat health emergency” were followed, she said they were – but internally within the public health system, without the public or even some civic officials aware they considered the weather an emergency.

“We had our provincial heat alert response committee meeting on the Friday (June 25) morning and a heat emergency was declared in every regional health authority," she explained. “We’ve done them a number of times since 2009, but we've not had anywhere near the heat wave we saw in 2009, or of course this one."

Some of the recommendations in the previous reports are outside the public health officer’s purview, like temporary air conditioning for a common room in each apartment building, free buses for easy access to cooling centres and “actions such as modifying or cancelling outdoor public gatherings, allowing free access to public pools, opening cooling centres, and asking management of air conditioned buildings (malls, theatres, etc.) to maintain longer hours.”

PUBLIC HEALTH ALREADY MAKING CHANGES

The health minister insisted that while they’re waiting for the BC Coroners Service to investigate each death and make recommendations, they’re not waiting to “take some steps that’ll need to be taken," though he did not specify what those steps are.

"As far as I'm concerned, every single person matters in that (coroners’) review and actions will be taken based on recommendations in those reviews," said Adrian Dix. “It is significant what happened, and it requires a significant response."

He pointed out that it appears while most of the deaths involved seniors, those who lived in care homes or assisted living fared better in the heat because they were supervised for signs of distress and had some access to fans and other cooling measures; long-term updating of care homes to include air conditioning and individual rooms are on his radar as well.

Dix also shot back at the BC Liberals’ call for an independent review into the hundreds of deaths that week, insisting that the BC Coroners Service is independent and the best agency to conduct analysis and make recommendations. Nearly twice as many people died in Fraser Health than the provincial average, when compared to historic death rates during that time period.

FAR-REACHING IMPLICATIONS AND A 'GIDDY' PREMIER'S MEA CULPA

Henry said that ambulance wait times are part of a review into the deaths already underway by the Ministry of Health, and that they need to find out more about exactly how and where people died and what more help could be provided to prevent a similar tragedy.

BC Emergency Health Services has struggled to explain why they didn’t escalate their internal response to the maximum level with “all hands on deck” for paramedics until after the heat wave had started subsiding.

The scrutiny and self-reflection by health officials comes as the premier acknowledged government was distracted by the escalating wildfire risk and the pandemic when he dismissed the heat wave’s impact last week, saying “fatalities are part of life” and that “the public was acutely aware we had a heat problem.” The comments, widely panned as insensitive in the wake of hundreds of deaths, made international headlines.

“We didn't know what to expect,” admitted John Horgan on Tuesday, going on to say he didn’t put much stock in the weather predictions. “I mean, forecasters were telling us that the temperatures were going to rise, we acknowledged that,and then we thought ‘Well, it's June, we're almost into the summer’ – we did what normal human beings would do, we try to absorb information that was foreign to us and continue on in our regular patterns.”

He went on to acknowledge he was caught up in the good news of the day when he made the dismissive comments, for which he apologized on Twitter.

“We were a bit giddy at the prospect of saying goodbye to the (pandemic state of) emergency and stepping, of course, into the third step of our restart,” he said. “We didn't think about it as catastrophic hotter weather, we thought of it as hotter weather and I don't think there are too many people that didn't.”

Henry doesn’t intend to be caught under-prepared again.

"We're going to see what we can learn from this past week's extreme, extreme heat wave so that we're better prepared for the rest of the summer, but also to look at whether there's specific communities we need to do additional measures in, not just for this summer but for the future as well," she said.

"I know some of the temperatures are expected to go up next week. These are the times when we need to look after our neighbours, check in on each other."