As concerns grow about the spread of novel coronavirus, British Columbia’s largest health authority, which serves 1.9 million people, currently has just 80 intensive care unit (ICU) beds, with only eight unoccupied as of Monday, The News has learned.
In an email, a Fraser Health spokesperson said the health authority’s 80 beds were 90 per cent full. That would leave just eight empty ICU beds. As of Tuesday, one COVID-19 patient was in intensive care in the region. Fourteen people in the region had been confirmed to have had the new coronavirus.
The province’s top doctor, though, says the health care system has the ability to increase such beds – as it did in 2009 during the H1N1 pandemic.
The Fraser Health region stretches from White Rock to Hope, and includes the municipalities Delta, Surrey, Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack.
In Italy, one of the pandemic’s hot spots, officials have labeled a lack of hospital beds as a key concern there. Patients with COVID-19 are hospitalized much more frequently than those who get the flu, with many requiring ventilators. Italy has about 3.2 hospital beds per 1,000 people, according to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development. That’s double the Fraser Health rate. Canada had 2.5 beds per 1,000 people, as of 2018.
Health Minister Adrian Dix noted that hospitals are generally more crowded during the winter flu season, and that officials hope to lessen the COVID-19 demands on the system while flu patients occupy many beds.
“This is a challenging time of year and this is a challenge for everybody and it’s why we’re acting so aggressively and have been, not just this week but the last seven weeks, to contain the virus in British Columbia – To push it back and push it as close to the end of flu season as we can and to contain it.”
Officials can also postpone scheduled surgeries and take other actions to free up space.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial medical officer, noted that B.C.’s hospitals and health care system have previously shown an ability to increase the number of intensive care spaces to react to a pandemic. In 2009, she noted, the spread of H1N1 pandemic left many young people needing ventilators.
“This is something we can do if we need to,” she said. In 2009, “we had a lot of young people who needed ventilatory care and it would have overwhelmed our ICU capacity, but hospitals developed plans around the province – because it wasn’t affecting every ICU at the same time. I often tell the story that if the Olympics had been planned for October and November of 2009, we would have had to postpone or cancel them because our ICUs were complete. They were full of young people on long-term ventilatory support.”
Henry said there is also the ability to move patients currently in hospital to other locations, if need be.
“We can move people temporarily to other places. So it’s not like a full-time placement in a care home for somebody. There’s provisions we can do in our system to push people out of hospital who don’t need to be in the acute care bed for that period of time.”
Scheduled surgeries can also be postponed to allow for the use of those areas of the hospital.
A Fraser Health spokesperson noted that most people who contract a respiratory illness like the new coronavirus can recover at home and that those who do require hospitalization can be treated both in the ICU and high acuity and medicine wards.
But Fraser Health has fewer beds per person than the B.C. average, and B.C. has fewer acute care beds per capita than the Canadian average. As of last winter, Fraser Health had 1.4 beds per 1,000 people.
Intensive care beds
- Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Centre: 8
- Burnaby Hospital: 9
- Chilliwack General Hospital: 6
- Langley Memorial Hospital: 6
- Peace Arch Hospital: 7
- Royal Columbian Hospital: 16
- Ridge Meadows Hospital: 7
- Surrey Memorial Hospital: 21
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