The University Hospital of Northern B.C. in Prince George is one of 17 hospitals in B.C. that have been designated as primary COVID-19 sites, which would be the first tasked with taking care of coronavirus patients in the event that the number of cases surges.
Health authorities have been examining where critical care hospitals and ventilators may be needed if the number of coronavirus cases start to increase dramatically, using different scenarios based on what has happened in other countries, including South Korea, Italy, and the province of Hubei in China.
The models so far show the trajectory of the outbreak in B.C. is closer to that of South Korea, which is good news for health care officials.
But health officials are also planning for a worst-case scenario, such as that seen in northern Italy.
Even in that case, B.C. does have the capacity to care for COVID-19 patients, said Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s chief medical health officer, on Friday.
But it would require significant efforts, including moving patients who don’t require critical care out of hospitals and transferring patients between facilities.
Making an early decision to cancel elective surgeries and free up as many acute-care beds as possible has been key to preparations, said Dix.
Currently there are 457 adult critical care ventilators available in B.C. hospitals, including 348 at the 17 large hospitals where most COVID-19 patients are expected to be treated, said Dix. A total of 72 more ventilators that have been ordered or are being repaired are expected to be available next week.
There are about 1,200 ventilators in the province as a whole, but some of those are required for other patients, such as those being transported by ambulance.
There are currently 228 intensive care beds at the 17 designated COVID-19 hospitals, plus another 113 beds that could be added at those sites for a total of 341 critical care beds at those hospitals.
That number could be expanded significantly if other hospitals were added in a worst-case scenario.
"We're preparing for the worst," said Dix.
Northern B.C. beds, patients
As of March 27, there were a total of 792 confirmed cases in B.C, 12 of them in the north.
The University Hospital of Northern B.C. has been designated the region's primary site for COVID-19 patients suffering from the respiratory disease, but the province says all other hospitals will be used if and as needed.
There are up to 57 beds available at UHNBC for critical patients who may need to be ventilated. That includes 10 critical care and 7 high acuity care beds, and another 9 critical care and six high acuity care beds at all other hospitals outside of Prince George. The health authority has the ability to use another 25 operating room beds to use if necessary.
There is however an immediate shortage of ventilators — just 16 are available. The province says those being ordered and upgraded will be sent to where they are needed.
Under best case scenarios, the province projects between three to 17 critical care patients at the hospital in Prince George, based on similar trajectories as South Korea and the Hubei province. It projects between six to 33 patients will be hospitalized in non-critical care at hospitals across the region.
Under a more extreme scenario, based on the epidemic crisis that has gripped northern Italy, the province projects between 23 to 38 patients in critical care at UHNBC; and between 41 to 160 hospitalized patients in non-critical care across the region.
Infection rate down
Those who don't have COVID-19 can be moved to other facilities if needed, Dr. Henry said.
Municipalities have also been asked to identify public facilities that may be available for COVID-19 response if those steps are necessary.
Dr. Henry said Friday the next two weeks are a critical time to how B.C.’s fares in the pandemic.
Since more restrictions were put in place to limit gatherings and ensure social distancing between March 12 to 14, B.C.’s rate of infection has dropped from a roughly 24% daily increase to a 12% daily increase.
B.C.’s current rate of infection is about 130 cases per million. If no measures had been put in place, that number would have been closer to 215 cases per million, said Henry.
B.C. likely won’t see the full impact of all its measures until between one and two weeks from today, Henry said. But so far, the measures are having the desired effect, she said.
"There's a slight chance of optimism that our rate of growth is being impacted by the measures we put in place in the last couple of weeks," Dr. Henry said.
But, "I don't dare talk about expectations. I want it to flatten more. The first 14 days we might not see much difference," she added. "There are still people who are going to develop this disease over the next two weeks.
Said Minister Dix: "What's needed most is 100% commitment in B.C. residents following Dr. Henry's orders, to continue bending the curve. That's how we deal with COVID-19 in the coming weeks and months."
This is a developing story.
— with files Tom Summer in Fort St. John, and Jane Seyd in Vancouver.
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at email@example.com.