Vancouver Island hospitals issue urgent plea to staff as emergency rooms overwhelmed by heat wave

Vancouver Island's largest hospitals are asking staff to cancel holidays and take on extra shifts as the recent heat wave has sent emergency room visits surging.

A notice sent to Island Health hospital staff Tuesday night says acute-care centres in Victoria, Nanaimo and Duncan have reached "extremely high patient volumes, exacerbated by the recent heat wave."

The notice was signed by the directors and emergency managers at the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, the Cowichan District Hospital, Victoria General Hospital and the Royal Jubilee Hospital.

"We are asking you to help in this unexpected surge by reviewing available shifts… and bidding on as many shifts as you are able to work," the memo says. "In addition, please limit any unplanned absences whenever possible."

The notice, which was sent to both medical and administrative staff, asks employees to "reschedule any approved vacation or discretionary leave in the next few days."

The hospital administrators say qualified staff may be reassigned to acute-care units to meet the most urgent patient needs.

"ED [emergency department] visits, admissions and overall volumes are expected to continue to be high now through the end of the weekend," says the notice. "We recognize this comes during the start of summer holidays and following an exceptionally challenging year."

British Columbia's chief coroner says at least 100 sudden deaths recorded over the weekend were likely caused by the historically high temperatures in B.C.

"This number will increase as data continues to be updated," Lisa Lapointe said in a statement Tuesday. "Coroners are carefully gathering all information available for each death reported, to determine the cause and manner of death, and whether excessive heat played a role."

By Wednesday afternoon, Lapointe estimated the heat had killed at least 300 people in B.C., and again warned the tally would continue to rise "as coroners enter death reports into our system."

Officials with Island Health issued a public statement Wednesday asking residents to avoid visiting emergency rooms for treatment of minor injuries or illnesses.

“When people use our emergency departments wisely, it goes a long way in helping dedicated emergency room physicians, nurses and clinical staff provide timely, quality care to patients who truly need emergency care,” said Island Health chief medical executive Dr. Ben Williams.

The health authority is asking the public to instead visit walk-in clinics or family doctors if non-urgent medical care is required, and to make sure prescriptions for critical medications are up to date, to avoid putting undue stress on hospitals.

“Your support is more important now than ever as these care teams work through an unprecedented heat wave on the heels of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic," Williams added.