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Keith Baldrey: January puts extra pressure on B.C. health care

Resources being reallocated to meet demand as wave of illnesses, surgeries, missed shifts stretch the system.
Respiratory diseases and ramped-up surgery schedules are making this month an extremely busy one for B.C. hospitals.

Maybe it is time to reinstitute the once-nightly ritual of banging pots and pans in tribute to front-line health-care workers.

That’s because even after the extraordinary pressures brought to bear on them because of the pandemic, those who work in B.C. hospitals are experiencing the busiest times on the job in years.

In fact, it appears January may be one of the all-time busiest months for the system, at least when it comes to hospital activity.

It certainly will be the busiest month since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared almost three years ago.

Last week ended with more than 10,200 people occupying a hospital bed in this province.

The B.C. hospital system has only 9,202 “base” hospital beds, so that means about 1,000 patients are occupying “surge” beds, which can be located in all kinds of areas in hospitals (hallways, closets, sunrooms etc.).

While January is typically a busy time for hospitals, this month is particularly busy because of a combination of factors.

We have recently experienced a significant increase in the number of people requiring hospitalization because they are seriously ill with a respiratory illness, particularly COVID-19, RSV or influenza.

As well, as a further sign that we are getting back to “normal,” people are now going to a hospital (most likely an emergency room) when they likely avoided going anywhere near a hospital during much of the pandemic.

In other words, the reluctance many people appeared to have when to accessing the hospital system during the early days of the pandemic appears to have disappeared.

Also, January is when a lot of elective surgeries are performed because many people decline to have surgery before the holiday season (who wants to spend Christmas Eve in a hospital bed?) and so the system has to catch up.

Further straining an already overwhelmed situation is the ongoing high level of workplace absences among health-care workers because of illness.

Before the pandemic, a typical week would see about 7,000-9,000 workers miss at least one shift a week because of illness.

For the past many months, that number has climbed to 14,000-17,000 shifts a week.

All these factors are why, beginning this week, health authorities will reactivate “emergency operation centres” in 20 hospitals. It means reallocating resources to ensure things like patient flow and emergency room congestion are dealt with properly.

It also means extra attention will be paid to ensure that patients who may be ready to head home, will indeed get there (thus opening a bed) with proper home supports in place. This last measure may prove to be controversial in some instances, as it is more than likely some patients being asked to go home may not think they should.

These measures will be in place for six weeks, to a point when, it’s hoped, the number of people seriously ill with respiratory illnesses begins to decline and the catch-up in delayed surgeries is complete.

On the good news front, the number of people requiring hospitalization from influenza has been declining in recent weeks. However, COVID-19 hospitalizations have been increasing the past few weeks (after a steady decline) and RSV hospitalizations have been ramping up as well.

Nevertheless, everything adds up to this month being a very, very busy time for B.C. hospitals and front-line health care workers who have already been run off their feet during the pandemic.

Next time you see one, offer some thanks. Or head to the balcony and front yard and bang those pots again.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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