Interior Health already using surge bed capacity as provincial COVID-19 hospitalizations reach all-time high

Some hospitals squeezed

As COVID-19 hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units hit an all-time high, scheduled surgeries will start to be disrupted as healthcare staff are redeployed to manage surge bed capacity.

In a media briefing Monday, the provincial government said there are four hospitals in the BC Interior — Kelowna, Kamloops, Penticton and Trail — where the medical and surgical care departments are already under increased pressure due to operating at over 95 per cent base bed capacity.

The province said hospitals in Abbotsford, Surrey, Richmond and Vancouver are being strained in their critical care departments for the same reason.

Many large hospitals typically ran at close to 100 per cent capacity prior to the pandemic, but the steady growth of people being admitted with the virus over the past several weeks is starting to cause concern.

Across the entire Interior Health region, hospitals are operating at 98.1 per cent of capacity and are already utilizing 22.5 per cent of surge bed capacity.

Health officials say there is no shortage of physical space for COVID-19 patients, but staff will need to be moved from other parts of the healthcare system to staff surge beds.

"We are looking at a number of hospitals around B.C. moving into the utilization of surge beds requiring a degree of service deferral to support staff redeployment," said Health Minister Adrian Dix.

“Staff are genuinely exhausted after a year of this pressure,” added Dix. “There is pressure everyday, but the pandemic has made that pressure close to unbearable.”

Health officials say the lack of an influenza season this year has been a saving grace for the system. Before COVID-19, roughly 20 per cent of inpatient hospital cases and 10 per cent of critical care counts were linked to respiratory illness in a typical year. The absence of that has made it possible for the system to absorb COVID-19 so far.

B.C. has plenty of ventilator capacity and is running at just 29 per cent utilization.

Across the province, there are 441 people hospitalized with the coronavirus, 138 of whom are in the intensive care unit. B.C. has been focusing its COVID-19 care in 20 hospitals, so Dix said looking at provincial averages for hospital capacities “don’t tell the full story.”

Across the system, capacity remains and patients can be transferred to different facilities. But that move to surge capacity and the transferring of patients requires a significant amount of manpower that has to be drawn from somewhere.

Within Interior Health, there are 29 vacant ICU beds when factoring in base beds and surge capacity. There are 236 regular hospital beds vacant. As of Friday, the BCCDC said there were 23 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the IH region, 10 of whom are in the ICU.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said healthcare workers are tired, which is manifesting in refusals to take overtime shifts due to simple exhaustion and the fear that they will make a mistake while tired.

“They get very discouraged when you’ve been doing this day in and day out for a year and a half, it wears people down,” Dr. Henry said.

“They are tired of seeing young people coming in [to the hospital with COVID-19], and there has been a narrative in the last few weeks of — that we are overreacting and nobody is paying attention to this. That is hard for people who are going to work every single day and are looking after their families and doing those overtime shifts.”

Looking into the future, it is hoped that the province's vaccine program will start to put downward pressure on hospitalizations near the end of the month.

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