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Evan Saugstad: Anti-vax narratives won't solve northern health woes

We have too many COVID ICU patients to look after them all up here — but that is how our system is designed

saugstadI  got a text from down south a few days ago. It went something like this:

Him: “Unreal. So medevacs for these knuckle dragging redneck anti-vaxxers in DC and FSJ are 4 a day. Fly them to Vancouver at 40 grand a pop to clog up the ICU’s here.” 

Me: “Not that simple. Our ICU has been closed for over 2 years because Northern Health says they can’t find anyone to staff it.”

Him: “BS. Your ICU hasn’t been closed. FSJ emergency room staff were quitting en masse because they were overworked. There has not been one mention of ICU’s closed.”

Me: “Wrong. The ICU was closed before COVID appeared. Much better news story to leave that and Northern Health’s lack of capacity out so it makes Horgan and Dix look better.”

So it went, back and forth.

I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t get vaccinated, shouldn’t wear masks, or that we shouldn’t be socially responsible to stop and reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. For the record, I am vaccinated, do wear a mask, socially distance when I can, and show my vaccine card when asked.

Trust in system long broken

For a change, I thought CBC got most of a recent news story correct, one about how there are more reasons why some of our good residents are not getting vaccinated than the narrative they are all “knuckle dragging redneck anti-vaxxers.” CBC reported that many who live here are not happy with or trust the B.C. healthcare system and, specifically, Northern Health; that we don’t trust or believe in how they manage or how they report.

I agree with this assessment, and no, this is not a slight on or about our good healthcare workers who choose to work here and try to deliver good care. This is about a system and those who do not care, who won’t take the time to find out what is wrong, or make the effort and spend the money to deliver good healthcare.

It is also about our mainstream media who willingly, or possibly very naively, trust that their political friends and healthcare spin doctors will give them the truth and correct information. As the texter did, if one only listened to Global repeating government spin on the pandemic, you to would come to the same conclusion: Northeast B.C. is responsible for B.C.’s COVID woes and for that we must punish them.

But as with most news stories, there is much more to be said.

Problem compounding for years

Yes, it is correct to say we have too many COVID ICU patients to look after them all up here. But, and the big but — that is how our system is designed.

Our system is designed to fly critical care patients south, or occasionally to the east. There has never been any intention to provide more than basic health care and services in any of our local health centres outside of Prince George. Get sick, call the plane, and away you go. Away from home, away from family, and, hopefully, when you are better, they will not kick you out the door and make you find your own way home.

Now, when the Fort St. John Hospital is hit with a sicker-than-average person, the narrative is that we, as Northerners, are clogging up the southern medical system and that should not happen. Our good southern residents are told they deserve better. And then I get texts repeating the news story and get asked why we don’t look after ourselves.

Chronic understaffing has been part of the new Fort St. John Hospital as long as it has been in operation. I’m not sure if I have ever heard that it has been fully staffed. Ask Northern Health about this and you get the same line, year after year: “We are working on it… Every jurisdiction is the same… Be patient…”

The constant in all this is that we have had the same people at the helm. Same CEO, same COO, same Hospital Medical Director. One would think the Northern Health Board of Directors would begin taking an interest and start asking the obvious questions: “Are our current healthcare leaders capable of delivering more than we currently have? If these persons can’t do the job, should we, the Board, replace them and find some who will and can?”

No continuity of care

And of Minister Dix and Dr. Henry, shouldn’t they be giving a directive that B.C. will provide the necessary healthcare workers to open and expand all current ICU capacities to max, for the entire Northern Health region? With the power to compel ordinary citizens to become COVID police, you would think they could find the money and assign staff to the north until this emergency is over.

Feel sick, thinking about going for a test? We have all heard the directive: if you feel sick or think you might have COVID, stay home, go for a test, and don’t go anywhere until cleared, or if 14 days go by and you haven’t died. Well, I know of a few people who did just that. Felt sick, went to the health clinic, got tested, and then went home to wait... and wait, and wait. A week goes by with nothing, then the answer, no COVID — OK to go back to work.

Really? A week to find out this most important piece of information? You stayed home for a week to find out you weren’t sick, and only because our leaders do not care if you work or not, don’t care if you get paid or not.

So, guess what? It becomes much easier for one to deny they are sick, to just keep going to work to collect that much-needed paycheck hoping they don’t have COVID and, if they do, won’t be spreading it. 

What a system!

Do you wonder why there is a lack of rapport, trust, and understanding between patient and doctor, and patient and the system? Well, I, like many others, experience a new doctor every two years. Good people, professional, but only here for two years until they get the first posting south. See them a couple times and then gone. No time to develop any type of connection or continuity of care.

Thousands of youth still not eligible

And do you wonder about Fort St. John’s COVID vaccination numbers?

The city has about 22,500 residents. Northern Health last week reported about 74% (16,647) had the first jab, about 62% (13,910) the second.

The 2016 federal census says of our total population, about 7% are 65+, and 21% are 14 and under. The average age here is about 32. I couldn’t find specific stats for those under 12, but I estimate they represent about 15% (3,000 to 3,500) of our population and are not currently eligible to be vaccinated.

It is not surprising the northeast started out so slow with vaccination rates. Low senior numbers led to low overall initial rates, and our average age of 32 meant most of our residents were the last to be eligible for vaccination. 

Fort St. John, with a population of 22,500 — minus 3,500 people under 12 and not eligible for vaccination — equals 19,000 eligible people. If 16,647 have one jab, then this equals 87.6%. If 13,910 have two jabs, then this equals 73.2%.

B.C. reported the province was at 87.2% with first jabs, 81.9% with two jabs. My math says we are about equal to the B.C. average for one jab, and a bit behind for two, not as dismal as the numbers we keep hearing.

I sure wish our fearless leaders would use some real numbers and real stories, and begin working toward re-establishing some of that trust and confidence they love to talk about.


Evan Saugstad lives and writes in Fort St. John.

[Editor's Note: Adds link to 2020 BC population stats.]