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Health officials are bracing for a spike in hospitalizations in the coming weeks owing to a trio of respiratory illnesses: COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia’s major hospitals have been promised provincial help to manage patients and ease emergency department congestion amid an unprecedented demand for acute care beds.

The institutions are currently running well over capacity, and health officials are bracing for a spike in hospitalizations in the coming weeks owing to a trio of respiratory illnesses: COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said Friday that he is not prepared to start cancelling surgeries. Instead, the province will re-open emergency operation centres at 20 major hospitals.

The EOCs, which were created to manage pandemic pressures in the health care system, will install “dedicated leadership teams” that will review hospital bed availability and identify solutions to ease emergency department congestion. A key task will be to help get people ready for discharge more quickly, making room for new patients.

“There will be a daily focus on ensuring that there’s adequate space to welcome new patients into the hospital,” Mr. Dix told reporters. “It’s a proactive step to provide more supports through periods of expected additional pressure on our hospitals.”

The province had more than 10,200 patients in acute care beds, as of Thursday. There are roughly 9,200 base beds, which means there are roughly 1,000 patients in surge beds in hallways, storage closets and other temporary settings.

At the start of the pandemic, the province delayed surgeries to free up capacity in its hospitals for COVID patients. Last November, Mr. Dix said he was prepared to put surgeries on hold again if needed.

On Friday, however, he said the province completed a record number of surgeries in December and that he does not expect to slow that pace: “It’s important to make clear that the EOCs will support the continuation of surgeries.”

Aman Grewal, president of the BC Nurses’ Union, said the EOCs can help track patients better, but pushing them out the door won’t help if those people don’t have the necessary supports to help them return to the community.

“It helps management see where their patients are in terms of their journey in the hospital, to figure out how to get them out of the hospital sooner,” she said. “They’ll have whiteboards and care plans and so now, nurses going to have to be updating those, taking their time away from providing hands-on care to patients.”

In addition to the issue of hospitals being over capacity, there is also the challenge of understaffing: “The nurses are running from patient to patient, crisis to crisis.” Ms. Grewal said.

The pandemic is now heading into its fourth year, and health care workers are dealing with high levels of burnout in an overburdened industry. That has resulted in delays in ambulance response, emergency room closures, a shortage of family doctors and growing wait lists for critical care such as cancer treatment.

Mr. Dix said B.C. is working to improve recruitment and retention of health care workers, but he reiterated his call for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to increase health care transfers to the provinces to help pay for increased demand.

“We have a long-term plan to address these challenges. And we need others to be part of that. And you know, that includes, frankly, the Prime Minister stop acting like he’s the official opposition health critic for the provinces, and acting like the Prime Minister.”

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