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A person wears a mask as they walk past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver on April 9, 2021.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

B.C. hospitals, faced with record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 patients in critical care, are cancelling surgeries and redeploying health workers.

Hospitals around the province are at capacity and are struggling to meet the needs of a rising number of critically ill patients. That has forced the cancellation of surgeries in the health regions of Vancouver Coastal and Fraser this week, while critical-care nurses are being reassigned to help in those hospitals in Surrey, Abbotsford and New Westminster that are stretched thin.

“Emergency room nurses are certainly overwhelmed by the numbers of patients who are presenting with COVID,” said Christine Sorensen, president of the BC Nurses’ Union. She said there are hospitals around the province that are well over capacity, from Fort St. John and Prince George to Nanaimo and Campbell River. “And they’re concerned patient care will suffer or be denied, if more stringent measures are not put in place to control the spread of this virus in this province.”

She said her union has been warning the provincial government for months that it’s facing a shortage of critical-care nurses if COVID-19 cases continue to rise. “We are incredibly fearful, as nurses and as a profession, that tragedy will happen in this province that could have been prevented.”

While the province was successful in avoiding a massive spike in cases in the first wave, health officials are warning that the system is now on the brink of being overwhelmed. “The doctors, nurses, care aides, cleaners, respiratory therapists, nutritionists – all of the people that are keeping people alive and saving lives every day in our hospital systems – are tired,” Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry warned last week, after meeting with front-line hospital workers. “They are very concerned about the disheartening signs we are seeing.”

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province has “surge” beds available to accommodate additional patients if needed. However, he warned, the concern is whether exhausted health workers can keep up. “The issue is, we want to ensure that our staff are able to provide the level of care required for COVID-19 patients.”

While close to one-quarter of British Columbians have had at least their first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, cases are surging because of the variants of concern that are more easily spread. Other provinces are facing the third wave with imposed curfews and school closings, but B.C. continues to apply restrictions narrowly. Social interactions have been mostly banned since last November, but classrooms and most businesses remain open.

On Monday there were 121 COVID-19 patients in critical care – the highest case count to date.

In March, 2020, the provincial government cancelled thousands of non-emergency surgeries in anticipation of a wave of pandemic patients that did not arrive. The government then relaunched surgeries two months later, and has been working to eliminate the backlog since.

Mr. Dix noted this is the first time since last spring that surgeries have been threatened because of pandemic cases.

On Wednesday, Premier John Horgan will meet with his cabinet to debate further restrictions as the latest measures, imposed March 29, have so far failed to slow the third wave. The latest restrictions closed in-room service in restaurants and bars and curtailed some gym activities, and health officers can now temporarily shut individual businesses if three or more workers get sick.

“I believe we have enough carrot and enough stick for those who are paying attention,” Mr. Horgan told reporters Tuesday. But he said cabinet would discuss more stringent measures for those who are not abiding by the rules: “We will use the tools that are available to us, if we believe they are effective.”

Both the Premier and his Health Minister stressed that British Columbians need to avoid virtually all social interactions, and non-essential travel. Since November, Dr. Henry has advised B.C. residents not to travel for vacations or to visit friends or family outside of their household or core bubble. The restrictions were recently eased slightly, allowing people to have small gatherings outdoors, but even that is now being discouraged by Dr. Henry.

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