Skip to main content

Good morning! Wendy Cox in Vancouver and James Keller in Calgary today.

People living in neighbourhoods in northwest Surrey are experiencing the highest COVID-19 case counts in British Columbia, with testing positivity rates extraordinarily high as well. But despite that, newly released data shows that vaccination rates in those neighbourhoods are lagging behind other regions of the province.

The data is routinely collected by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, but unlike in Alberta and Ontario, B.C. doesn’t publicly release the data in as granular a format.

The province was compelled to on Friday after one BCCDC report was leaked to Postmedia. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry also pledged to release more data in the future.

Public-health officials have made a series of moves to address the skyrocketing case counts in Fraser Health, the province’s largest health authority, which includes the City of Surrey. Those initiatives have included declaring some regions as hot-spot zones. Essential workers, including teachers, have also been prioritized for vaccination in Surrey.

So a careful reader could guess that something more dire was going on in those neighbourhoods. But the data released Friday underlined the difficulty. The data, current on April 29, show that the city of Surrey, which represents one-tenth of B.C.’s population, makes up 29 per cent of all COVID-19 cases.

But the rate of infection is actually worse, the data show, because cases are clustered in northwest Surrey’s neighbourhoods, which census data show include a high proportion of workers in low-paying, front-facing jobs – sales and service, trades, and transport operators – who are more vulnerable to exposure to the coronavirus. Many do not have sick pay, making it difficult to stay home if they feel unwell.

The northwest corner of Surrey has a lower rate of vaccination than other parts of the city, while rates of testing positivity show at least one-fifth of all COVID-19 tests performed are positive.

Dr. Henry said there has been an effort not to publicize areas with higher transmission of the virus to avoid stigma and racism.

``We have seen repeatedly that there are people who are stigmatized, who have COVID, and we only need to look at the anti-Asian racism that we’re seeing, the anti-Indigenous racism that we’re seeing. So it is about finding that balance and doing the best with the data that we have.’'

In Alberta, which has the highest COVID-19 infection rates in North America and among the highest in the world, the government changed course this week and imposed severe public-health measures. These included shutting down in-person grade-school classes; closing all restaurant patios, which had been allowed to remain open; forcing workplaces with outbreaks to close for 10 days; and further limiting capacity for retailers, places of worship and other settings.

Premier Jason Kenney, who had resisted imposing stricter measures and has previously boasted about his government’s lighter touch toward pandemic restrictions, said the situation in the province’s hospitals left him with no choice. Intensive-care admissions have reached the same level as the peak during the second wave, and with infections still increasing, the hospital numbers will almost certainly get worse. Mr. Kenney said that if infection rates continued on their current course, the hospitals could be so overwhelmed that doctors would be forced to choose within a month who gets care.

Inside the hospitals, doctors say it’s as bad as the second wave and getting worse. The influx of new ICU patients means ferrying them between hospitals in the same city, or in some cases from rural areas into places like Calgary and Edmonton. It adds to the workload but for now it also means the system can handle the surge.

Aisha Mirza, an emergency-department physician at Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton, says transferring ICU patients is happening more often. Recently, she intubated a patient and then, rather than being wheeled to the ICU, that person was loaded into an ambulance. “I was like: ‘I can’t believe this. This patient isn’t going up to ICU because there’s no bed.’ ”

With, the combination of COVID-19 patients and other patients who also end up in the ICU, the province is well above what its maximum intensive-care capacity was before the pandemic. Health officials have spent the previous year adding more beds. They say they can stretch that to 425. Although even that number would cause serious disruptions across the health care system. Most non-essential surgeries and procedures would need to be cancelled, in part to free up staff to care for COVID-19 patients.

The worst-case scenario is that hospitals become so overwhelmed that doctors would need to ration scarce resources – in other words, decide who gets critical care and who doesn’t. Alberta Health Services released a triage document that lays out how those decisions will be made, prioritizing people who have the highest chance of living for the next year.

Rebeccah Rosenblum, an emergency-department doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, said it was sobering to read that document, but she understands the need for it and is glad there is support if it ever came to that. Still, she says everyone in the health care system will be working to ensure that never happens.

“I am not sure people understand how much of a last resort that is for staff in the system,” said Dr. Rosenblum. “Every person will be called. Every space will be found in order to avoid having to triage care.”