Some B.C. hospitals 'close to collapse' amid surge in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients

Frontline health-care workers are sounding the alarm that part of B.C.’s health-care system is on the verge of being overwhelmed, as Lower Mainland hospitals quietly cancel surgeries amid a surge of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

All the province’s COVID patients under the age of 50 in intensive care units are unvaccinated, with doctors painting a troubling picture of the scenes playing out in their hospitals. 

“We have people from the ages of 20 to 40 with no health problems of note who are getting very sick – we have pregnant women who are needing to be intubated, and that's putting them and their babies in jeopardy,” explained Dr. Gerald Da Roza, head of medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital.

“Some people fundamentally believe young people don’t get sick, but the hard part is while some people will be fine if they get COVID, there are some people who will not and we have no idea of predicting who will not be fine.”

He said some patients are asking for the vaccine when they’re already sick enough to need intubation.

“At the point when they realize the gravity of the situation, they ask at that time (to be vaccinated) to which we explain, ‘It wouldn't protect you from the disease you have now,’” said Da Roza. ”They do express some regret.”

On Friday, Fraser Health sent an internal memo advising staff it would be scaling back some scheduled surgeries for the rest of September, but did not make the postponements public. 

A WAITING ROOM DEATH AND DIRE WARNINGS

Hospitals outside Metro Vancouver are undoubtedly facing the most dire circumstances, including the dual challenges of soaring COVID hospitalizations and crippling staffing shortages, particularly among nurses

On Tuesday, a grandmother in Kamloops died in the waiting room of Royal Inland Hospital after waiting more than six hours to see a doctor for abdominal pain. B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix did not dispute there were only three nurses working an area of the hospital that should’ve had 24, with patients lined up in hallways waiting for medical attention. 

Farther north, health-care workers are sounding the alarm that the fourth wave of COVID is about to overwhelm the entire system as seriously ill patients are already being moved to bigger hospitals.

“It's definitely close to collapse,” said University Hospital of Northern B.C. ICU physician Dr. Simon Rose.

The Prince George Hospital, for example, has 15 critically ill COVID-19 patients, even though the intensive care unit typically has only 10 beds; non-COVID patients are being treated in hallways.

“(ICU) nurses refer to it as a warzone,” said BC Nurses Union council member Danette Thomsen.

UNVACCINATED AFFECTING ALL PATIENTS IN POLITICIZED ATMOSPHERE

Even though health officials have been clear that unvaccinated British Columbians are at far higher risk of being hospitalized with the ultra-contagious Delta variant, the warnings have done little to change the vaccination rate, which has largely stagnated.

"Unfortunately, COVID vaccination has become somewhat politicized, along with COVID overall,” observed Devon Greyson, assistant professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, pointing out some people still haven’t had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

Greyson says the entrenched attitudes of the unvaccinated – and the growing backlash against them from everyone else – is making for a difficult atmosphere for people to have a dialogue. That’s unproductive, considering research suggests many people may yet opt for the vaccine.

"It can be very challenging to make a decision that goes against peers or family members or even perhaps a health-care provider you trust, like a chiropractor,” said Greyson. “When we hear their stories about how this happened for them, they generally describe it as a cognitive journey, of learning more, often from effective messengers like trusted health-care providers and other trusted sources such as older family members.”

Doctors and pharmacists have repeatedly asked for authorization and support to administer COVID-19 vaccines immediately after discussing the issue in a private, personal, one-on-one setting, but on Thursday Dix once again rejected the idea.

“The issue of getting vaccinated or not in B.C. is not a matter of access,” the health minister said when CTV News Vancouver raised the issue.

“We’re going everywhere to help people get vaccinated (at provincial clinics).”

Greyson isn’t deterred, suggesting each British Columbian who has been vaccinated can help influence someone who hasn’t.

"Sharing that you trust vaccination can help other people understand that is the norm in Canada," they pointed out. “There's no one magic intervention that's going to build confidence for everyone. We're past the point of the easy messaging that will work for most people.”

Instead, B.C. is now at the toughest part of the vaccination effort, with the fourth wave spurring another surge in hospitalizations and raising the stakes for everyone needing medical care, whether they have COVID or not.