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Whistler receives Rural BC Community Award for COVID-19 response

With its young population living in cramped housing, Whistler proved ideal testing ground for ‘social prescription’ health-care model during pandemic
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The Whistler Medical Clinic's Dr. Karin Kausky, left, and Whistler Community Services Society executive director Jackie Dickinson accept the Rural BC Community Award on Tuesday, Sept. 13,

Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) executive director Jackie Dickinson likes to quote a pearl of wisdom her eldest son Michael dropped on her a year and a half ago, in the midst of the pandemic that effectively shut down the world—and Whistler along with it.

“He said, ‘Momma, I believe COVID has come here to teach us something we could not learn on our own,” Dickinson recounted. “And tonight is living proof of that. I don't believe that all of us would be in this space tonight without COVID. There are things that it did and it brought for this community that Whistler had never seen before.”

Dickinson delivered her stirring speech to a standing-room-only crowd at WCSS’ Nesters office on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at a ceremony recognizing Whistler for its response to COVID-19. Each year, the Rural Coordination Centre of BC (RCCBC) recognizes the work of B.C.’s rural physicians and communities through the BC Rural Health Awards. The Whistler Medical Clinic’s Dr. Karin Kausky quietly accepted the RCCBC Community Award—which identifies a community that has developed innovative and collaborative approaches and solutions to local health-care issues—on behalf of the community in May, but Tuesday’s presentation marked the official celebration.

What’s clear is that Whistler had plenty to learn from COVID-19, and its legacy will shape health-care and social-service delivery in the resort for years to come. At the presentation, Kausky, Whistler’s 2021 Citizen of the Year, discussed the unique challenges the resort’s demographic and housing makeup posed in combating the disease’s spread—and how it proved a fertile testing ground for a new “social prescription” delivery model that has been gaining momentum in medical circles across the country.

“Early on in COVID, it might have been expected that Whistler, with a really large youth population, might become minimally impacted by COVID. That did not end up being the case at all,” she said. “Because much of our youth population works in front-line service sector work, they don't have paid sick days, and they often live in dense shared accommodation, that youth population ended up being the most vulnerable to COVID because they were socially vulnerable.”

That vulnerability drove home the importance of broadening the services offered to local COVID patients to accommodate not just their medical needs, but their social needs as well.

“If you showed up with your COVID symptoms, and your fever and sore throat ended up being a strep throat, you got assessed, treated and COVID tested all in one place,” Kausky explained. “And through this full-service model, it became really obvious, really quickly that a lot of people that we were seeing were struggling with paying their rent, with accessing food, with finances, or just feeling really lonely and unsupported. So the collaboration broadened, and it got even more effective.”

Early on in the pandemic, a group of family physicians, emergency doctors and nurse practitioners teamed with the municipality, Vancouver Coastal Health and Sea to Sky Divisions of Family Practice to create a safe space for patients with COVID symptoms to access care—whether they were covered by a medical plan or not.

“I am just blown away by the way this community came together in one single effort to support every single resident that was here. It didn't matter if they had a doctor, it didn't matter if they had health-care coverage. They got what they needed because of everyone here and the people that they represent,” said Monica McDonald, executive director of Sea to Sky Divisions of Family Practice. “It's hopefully something we never have to do again, but if we do, boy, are we ready.”

During the first local surge of the virus, that collaboration broadened to include WCSS, the RCMP, the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation, local businesses, volunteers, and others, which each chipped in in their own way to the response efforts.

“It's not surprising to me that this collaborative created a much-improved experience for patients affected by COVID in subsequent waves of the pandemic,” Kausky noted.

Making history

The pandemic brought with it a number of historic firsts for Whistler. After young, front-line workers living in cramped housing struggled to self-isolate safely, WCSS helped develop the community’s first-ever temporary emergency housing program.

Around the same time, a young homeless man exhibiting COVID symptoms came into the Whistler Health Care Centre. Whistler Medical Clinic staff then called WCSS, urging that “we somehow have to keep this individual connected to health-care,” recalled Dickinson. So, WCSS lent the man a laptop, and he registered for health-care right there in the waiting room, before returning the computer. That one experience led to the creation of Whistler’s emergency electronic community assistance program, another collaboration between several local organizations.

“Through that lived experience and that collaboration, it developed a program that still exists today, and hundreds of people in that program have now gotten free access to cell phones and technology,” relayed Dickinson.

Along with the scope of collaboration involved in Whistler’s COVID response, what was remarkable is how quickly supports came together. When WCSS contacted the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation during a particularly bad wave of infections, the charity jumped into action, and by the following morning had filled WCSS’ hallways with hundreds of personal hygiene kits that were ultimately delivered to high-density housing across the resort.

At the height of last year’s omicron surge, scores of former WCSS volunteers—several of whom were there for the non-profit’s inception in 1989—returned to the fold to pack thousands of rapid COVID test kits. 

“Some of our very first volunteers that developed and created Whistler Community Services came back almost 30 years later to do that work—volunteers that have been with us for 20 years,” Dickinson noted. “Omicron or a pandemic will not stop these ladies. They keep coming in.”

A new model for health-care delivery

One of the most significant legacies from the pandemic is a new primary care model being developed for the resort by the Whistler 360 Health Collaborative Society. First unveiled last September, the concept envisions a community-led, non-profit primary care centre, ideally co-located in the existing Whistler Health Care Centre, that would improve physician accessibility and offer a more holistic care model that would include general practitioners, nurse practitioners and a range of other health-care and social-service professionals under one roof.

“The concept came together during COVID and was inspired a lot by the cooperation and collaboration that you all demonstrated and we're celebrating here tonight,” said Carol Leacy, Whistler 360 chair, at Tuesday’s ceremony. “Our goal is really to create an environment that will attract and retain more doctors, nurse practitioners, health providers in general, providing full-service family practice in Whistler to the point where we can have enough providers that everyone has timely access to primary care.”

More than 40 per cent of Whistlerites are currently without a family doctor, a rate that has no doubt risen even higher since the closure, in May, of Town Plaza Medical Clinic, leaving the Whistler Medical Clinic as the community’s sole remaining family practice.

Part of the approach Whistler 360 is taking to recruit and retain physicians is eliminating the administrative burden most family doctors have to contend with, which effectively forces them to act as small business owners as well as physicians. The Whistler Medical Clinic has already agreed to allow Whistler 360 to take over its admin duties—which include everything from booking patient appointments to managing electronic medical records—“so that the doctors and nurse practitioners can focus on delivery of health-care and not on running a business,” Leacy said, adding that the society is targeting January to take over the clinic’s administration.

Thanks to VCH, Whistler 360 has also secured additional space at the local health clinic, and is actively working on bringing in more physicians and nurse practitioners. “So lots of things still moving, lots of things still to be finalized, but we're really excited to be moving forward,” Leacy added.

Learn more at whistler360health.org.