Provincial and local health officials have refused to answer questions about how the Fraser Valley’s crowded hospitals would cope with a surge in patients if a health emergency were to send more people to local emergency rooms.
Health officials say the risk of novel coronavirus spreading in British Columbia “remains low.” More than 100 people have died in China, and the first case of the SARS-like virus in B.C. was only confirmed Tuesday. That person, a man in his 40s, is in isolation at home.
Pandemic planning – particularly for an influenza virus – is extensive in British Columbia, and the Ministry of Health has a range of plans, all finalized in 2012.
Those documents, though, don’t explain how busy hospitals would manage increased patient loads, should they arise during a pandemic or similar health emergency.
The News asked Fraser Health how the region’s hospitals would cope with any significant increase in patients, given the severe crowding that already occurs during busy flu seasons.
Fraser Health communications staff directed questions about pandemic response to the BC Centre for Disease Control. A spokesperson for that organization said hospitals “take steps to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s pandemic response plans.” Questions about how already-crowded hospitals would deal with a surge in patients went unanswered.
The 2009 H1N1 pandemic saw most people experience only mild or moderate symptoms, and most never attended a hospital. But the province’s pandemic influenza response plan says it’s “difficult to know how the next pandemic influenza virus will affect persons.”
Even non-pandemic influenza leads to seasonal increases in patient loads at hospitals.
The four months between December and March is the most-crowded season for B.C.’s hospitals, according to Ministry of Health figures obtained by Black Press.
In the Fraser Health Authority – and particularly hospitals in Chilliwack and Abbotsford – the winter season leaves facilities particularly congested. Last winter, the region’s hospitals operated at 109.4 per cent capacity, meaning one of every 10 in-patients in the province’s hospitals were in unfunded beds in an area not designated for ongoing care.
In Chilliwack and Abbotsford, where hospitals were filled to 128 and 124 per cent of their funded capacity, one of every four acute care patients were in makeshift bed locations. Health officials regularly cite the winter flu season when asked to explain why patients have ended up in unsatisfactory conditions in local hospitals.
Last Friday, the CBC reported that a 96-year-old woman had been stuck in Abbotsford Regional Hospital’s emergency room for days near the department’s doors.
The situation elsewhere in B.C. is less extreme, but occupancy rates in winter are higher than other parts of the year and regularly above 105 per cent.
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