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Burned-out health-care workers hope new restrictions curb COVID spread in B.C.'s north

·3 min read
Health-care workers in northern B.C. say they're struggling to keep up as hospitals become overwhelmed. Says one physician, 'it's not slowing down.' (Shutterstock/Alliance Images - image credit)
Health-care workers in northern B.C. say they're struggling to keep up as hospitals become overwhelmed. Says one physician, 'it's not slowing down.' (Shutterstock/Alliance Images - image credit)

Health-care workers in northern British Columbia hope new circuit breaker measures in the region will help curb the spread of COVID-19.

But until then, they are struggling to keep up.

"It's not slowing down," said Dr. Darren Jakubec, a staff physician at Bulkley Valley District Hospital in Smithers.

"Every day we have [new] people in with COVID on oxygen ... I've personally had to put a person under the age of 30 on a ventilator."

Smithers and the neighbouring communities of Burns Lake, Fraser Lake and Vanderhoof — all west of Prince George and east of Terrace — now represent the part of the province with the highest per capita number of new COVID-19 infections in the province.

From Oct. 8 to 14, new daily case counts in the area ranged from 37 to 54 per 100,000 people — compared to the rates of two to five per 100,000 recorded in most parts of Metro Vancouver and Victoria.

Watch | Smithers, B.C., doctor Darren Jakubec says staff are worn out by COVID-19 demands

Combined with lower-than-average vaccination rates, the result of these new infections is that COVID patients from the north are disproportionately impacting the health-care system as a whole, as patients in need of critical care are flown to hospitals in other parts of the province.

"An intensive care unit is a very specific thing that we don't have in Smithers or Burns Lake or Hazelton or Vanderhoof," Jakubec said. "We can't take care of very sick people, so we need to transfer them out."

Until recently, most of those transfers could be sent to the University Hospital of Northern B.C. in Prince George, but now even it is hitting capacity, said medical director Dr. Firas Mansour.

"Our high acuity unit is basically an ICU or critical care unit now," he said. "We've never done that before."

B.C. Centre for Disease Control
B.C. Centre for Disease Control

COVID-19 infections in B.C. by vaccination status, adjusted by population and age

Mansour said roughly 25 percent of the hospital is now devoted to caring for COVID-19 patients, with patients taking over parts of the surgical and medical wards, as well.

With hospitals in northern B.C. unable to keep up with demand, critical care patients have been being transferred to Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island where there is more capacity. But even that is becoming increasingly difficult.

Despite the province contracting two new planes to fly patients out of the region, flight paramedics say they are unable to keep up with the constant demand on their services.

"It's affecting the mental health and wellness of our paramedics and air crews," said Troy Clifford, president of the union representing paramedics in B.C.

Clifford said because of the extra safety protocols associated with transporting COVID positive patients, each transfer takes at least four hours to complete, limiting the number of flights that can be completed in a day.

And so patients are left waiting.

Andrew Kurjata/CBC
Andrew Kurjata/CBC

Jakubec said other work at his hospital is delayed as staff try to keep up with the extra pressures of caring for COVID patients waiting for transfers. He said he's worried about the impact on his colleagues and community.

"We cannot get to our sick patients in a timely manner," he said. "It's burning people out."

On Thursday, the province introduced new circuit breaker measures to the Northern Health region east of Terrace, in the hopes of lowering the number of new infections and, in turn, hospitalizations.

Every health-care worker CBC spoke to said they hope the restrictions will help curb the spread of COVID-19 before it's too late.

"There's only so many ICU beds in the province, and the north in particular," Clifford warned. "And they're maxed out."

For more stories from northern B.C., explore our new local news section and subscribe to Daybreak North in CBC Listen.

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