Northern hospitals 'overwhelmed' as B.C. doctors warn public to be safe

Doctors in northern British Columbia are warning residents to be extra cautious to avoid injury, as hospitals in the area – which has the lowest vaccination rates in the province – are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. 

The fourth wave of the pandemic is being driven by infections in the Northern Health Authority, with dozens of patients flown to Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island hospitals to receive care. This week, the chief of staff at a northern B.C. hospital wrote an open letter warning people in the Omineca region near Prince George that their hospital’s emergency department could be shut down after staff – who were fully vaccinated – caught COVID-19. 

"Our hospital is overwhelmed and our staffing is compromised – I don't think that everyone in our community understands how easily the staffing of a small rural hospital can be compromised,” said Dr. Rebecca Janssen, a hospitalist and chief of staff at Vanderhoof’s St. John Hospital.

“We are effectively begging people to be vaccinated and I hope that by expressing what dire straits we're in it does penetrate and people start taking this seriously, because I'm very worried for the community.“

A CULTURE OF SCEPTICISM AND DISTRUST

One of the MLAs in the region says he’s faced threats and there have been protests at his constituency office due to his vaccine advocacy, with an atmosphere of vaccine hesitancy and even hostility he blames on close proximity to Alberta.

"Alberta has been, we've all seen, very slow to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously and that really spread into our region,” said Peace River-South MLA Mike Bernier. “I've talked to a lot of people who say, 'If they're not doing it in Alberta, why are we doing it in British Columbia?'"

Family physician Dr. Suzanne Campbell believes the scepticism and lackadaisical attitude toward vaccines was, in part, due to low infection rates and few first-hand experiences with the virus before the fourth wave.

"I think it was a false belief that somehow we're protected by being in a rural community, by living on a farm, by not living in apartment buildings, by having more space that somehow we could avoid this,” she said, pointing out many people misunderstand of don’t follow guidelines when they test positive.

“Now, we really see the explosion of cases and we really see the pattern of this person was sick and their close contact disregarded the pulbic health recommendations and they went to school or to work and a week later we get those two phone calls.”

Earlier this week, the mayor of Pouce Coupe was stripped of some positions after questioning whether hospitals were actually full of COVID-19 patients, and a viral video of a speaker at a Dawson Creek council meeting was removed from YouTube for promoting vaccine misinformation, describing COVID-19 vaccines as a “genetic experiment.”

COMMUNITY DAMAGE AS FEARS GROW OVER EMERGENCY CAPACITY

Bernier warned the north is in trouble with so many COVID-19 patients, most of whom are unvaccinated, taking up scant hospital resources. 

“I've gone and checked and we have zero beds right now and what scares me is if we have a traumatic situation, we have a car crash, a house fire, someone has a heart attack – we don't have beds in Dawson Creek,” he said. “I've confirmed with doctors that a lot of those beds are being taken up by COVID patients."

The warning was echoed by Campbell, who said Prince George and other communities are similarly strapped for health-care capacity.

“Our emergency department is full,” she said, bluntly. “This is not a time to be doing high-risk activities, because if you get in a car accident, unfortunately all of the medical services we depend on might be delayed because the system is being overwhelmed."

Janssen pointed out that the north has the highest infection rates and lowest vaccination percentages in the province, a dynamic driven by misinformation and distrust in public institutions. That distrust is leading exhausted health-care workers to despair of their standing in the eyes of their neighbours and friends.

"I had hoped that if local physicians would try to speak to the community, we would have buy-in because as rural physicians, we see people through some of the most intense times in their lives – we attend their births, we see them through their deaths, injuries, cancer diagnoses,” she said. “It is very troubling and very hurtful to see that trust isn't actually there and that, I have found very difficult.”