Tri-City doctors call for respiratory assessment clinic as flu season draws near

While Fraser Health said it is accelerating plans to open a COVID-19 testing centre in Coquitlam, local doctors say it fails to address patients with COVID-like symptoms but who test negative and could end up putting pressure on emergency rooms as their symptoms progress.

Doctors at the Tri-Cities only COVID-19 testing clinic are calling on health authorities to open a Respiratory Assessment Clinic where patients can be assessed and treated by physicians without putting pressure on hospital emergency rooms. 

Over the last four months, the Tri-Cities COVID-19 & Influenza Like Illness Assessment Clinic has acted as the only COVID-19 testing facility in the Tri-Cities. But last week, the doctors at the clinic said they would be moving to shut down after repeated delays by Fraser Health to open a publicly-funded clinic meant staff had reached a tipping point and were too “burnt out” to go on. 

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Less than 24 hours later, Fraser Health announced it would be accelerating its plans to open a COVID-19 testing site in a Coquitlam parking lot. 

“We are extremely pleased that the Fraser Health Authority has accelerated the opening of the Coquitlam collection site,” wrote doctors Jordan Sugie and Carllin Man in an open letter to residents, mayors and health officials over the weekend.  

“[But] a testing-only site does not address the need for a doctor to assess and manage simple infections like Strep throat or more serious ones like pneumonia.”

Or as the subject line of the letter put it, “Still needed -- local Respiratory Assessment Clinic.” 

The Port Coquitlam COVID-19 testing clinic, which is set to close Friday, Oct. 2, has also doubled as a Respiratory Assessment Clinic, a clearing house to assess and treat patients suffering from COVID-19 symptoms but end up having other respiratory infections. That could mean anything from listening to a patient’s lungs to prescribing antibiotics to ward off pneumonia. 

Fraser Health has other, virtual plans to fill the gap.

In an email from Fraser Health, a spokesperson said that by Oct. 5, the health authority will have a virtual assessment option at the Tri-Cities test collection centre “to support people who need this service.”

Dr. Man told the Tri-City News that the new virtual option sounds like an 8-1-1 provincial health line done locally, and that to properly see patients, the region needs a dedicated facility where doctors have enough personal protective equipment and enough cleaning staff to keep patients and workers safe.

“There’s really no replacement for in-person consultations,” said Dr. Man, noting they become especially important as the Influenza season heats up. “Eventually somebody is going to have to see these people in person.”

Despite improvements in the procurement of personal protective equipment like masks and gowns, family physicians are still not properly equipped to see people with COVID-19 symptoms, according to the doctors.

“In my own practice, if I see someone who’s got a cough, I say go get a COVID test. If four days later, the person still has a cough, I have to make the decision: could this still be COVID but the test is negative? Do I want to take the risk and see them?” 

In other jurisdictions across Metro Vancouver, urgent and primary care centres have the necessary protective equipment and staffing to take on on the responsibilities of treating people with COVID-19-like symptoms but who test negative for the coronavirus. 

The Tri-Cities is one of the few regions of the Lower Mainland without an urgent and primary care centre, and though the province announced it would open one early in the new year, Dr. Man said he’s worried pressure could ramp up on hospital emergency rooms before then.

“We need to plan ahead and prepare instead of reacting to sudden changes. What if the ER gets totally slammed?” he said. 

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