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B.C. emergency services face rising COVID-19 cases, but many refuse to share data

Staff shortages are already growing across fire, police and ambulance services. Now, a leading infectious disease modeller warns of a 'danger zone' where emergency personnel shortfalls collide with peak hospitalizations.
ambulance MW
Last weekend, the BC Ambulance Service had up to nearly half of its Metro Vancouver vehicles out of service due to staffing shortages, according to the union representing ambulance paramedics.

As B.C. gets battered by Omicron, hundreds of police detachments and fire halls across British Columbia are refusing to share how many staff are off sick.

Both Vancouver and Victoria police departments declined to state how many officers were out because of COVID-19-related absences. RCMP E Division — which coordinates over 150 detachments across the province — also refused to detail staffing shortages, citing “operational reasons.” 

“We anticipate that there could be a rise in employees either requiring sick leave or requiring time off due to possible symptoms or exposures,” acknowledged RCMP Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet.

In Abbotsford, the police department was one of the few that provided hard numbers — 24 officers were out sick as of Monday, representing over 10 per cent of its workforce. 

The City of Abbotsford, meanwhile, refused to say how many firefighters were sick due to privacy concerns. When asked what policy prevented the city from sharing a simple number, a city spokesperson said to file a freedom of information request.

Fire departments in Kamloops, Delta, Whistler and the City and District of North Vancouver were among several others across the B.C. that declined to provide COVID-19-related staff shortages. 

Others municipal fire services were more forthcoming: Burnaby’s fire department said 17 of its 314 firefighters were off sick due to COVID-19 as of Jan. 14; in Port Coquitlam, 15 per cent of its firefighters have fallen sick with the virus since Jan. 1; and in Surrey, the department’s deputy chief of operations John Lehmann said 20 to 30 per cent of its workforce has been forced to stay home at any given time.

“We do have people testing positive and going off work every day,” said Lehmann, adding the department has been able to back-fill shifts so far.

Vancouver fire Chief Karen Fry said over 70 firefighters have been off work because of COVID-19 in the last month. She says firefighters are working overtime to fill a roughly 15 per cent absence rate on any given day. 

On Wednesday, the department told its firefighters they could reschedule vacations over the coming weeks to relieve people working multiple overtime shifts. 

“It does create a pressure,” Fry said. “The last option here would be to shut down our trucks, to not have our trucks available for fires.”

On some days, Fry said other departments around B.C. have had 50 per cent of their staff unable to come to work because of sickness.

“They’re the highest numbers we’ve seen since COVID so far,” she added. 

All of the fire and police departments, as well as several volunteer search and rescue units across B.C., said they were confident they could handle any spike in cases. 

RCMP E Division said it could provide “surge capacity” to any detachment under pressure by moving officers around the province. Fire departments, meanwhile, have mutual aid agreements that allow them to draw on fire halls in neighbouring communities. 

In Coquitlam, where the fire department has lost 24 firefighters due to COVID-19 illness since December, fire Chief Jim Ogloff said the department would need to hit 30 to 50 per cent staff shortages across all for of its four shifts before calling on neighbouring departments for help. That's when the department wouldn't have any off-duty firefighters to call in.

On Vancouver Island, acting fire Chief Dan Atkinson said the Victoria Fire Department has joined its counterparts in Saanich, Oak Bay and Esquimalt in a temporary plan to share staff so none have to resort to overtime. Up to 20 per cent of the capital's firefighters have been out sick on any given shift. 

“The current situation feels like a playing field that changes daily,” said Atkinson.

BIG WAVE OF HOSPITALIZATIONS COMING: MODELLER

Signs that B.C.’s emergency services are poised to face unprecedented pressure are already mounting. In a massive blow last week, Prince Rupert lost 20 firefighters who were forced to isolate because of a COVID-19 exposure or illness; in Victoria, the police department invoked a clause for the first time that allows the chief to move officers into different positions in the case of an emergency.  

Cracks also appear to be growing in the province's health-care system.

LifeLabs, B.C.’s largest provider of medical laboratory services, said Omicron-related staff shortages had forced it to shutter 11 locations across Metro Vancouver, Victoria and Kamloops. Announced Jan. 12, the closures are expected to last at least two weeks. And on Tuesday, the Nicola Valley Hospital emergency department in Merritt had to close for more than 12 hours "due to an unforeseen limited physician availability."

UBC infectious disease modeller Sally Otto estimates between five and 10 per cent of British Columbians are actively infected with COVID-19. 

The most highly infectious strain of the SAR-CoV-2 virus so far, Omicron has emerged as B.C.'s dominant strain, and is thought to represent more than 80 per cent of cases. Omicron appears to cause less severe infections in many people, particularly if they are vaccinated. But because it spreads so fast, the sheer number of cases means hospitalizations are surging across the world. 

Despite a patchwork of data, Otto says she’s confident a big wave of hospitalizations is coming. Other jurisdictions closer to the peak of their Omicron wave offer a glimpse of what could soon hit B.C.

Last week, the chief of the Winnipeg Police Service declared a state of emergency after 90 members of its workforce faced active infections and 170 were booked off on COVID-19-related leave. 

On Jan. 6, the City of Toronto announced a plan to re-deploy staff should COVID-19-related absences climb as high as 60 per cent. That decision was made with emergency and essential services operating with an average of 13.7 per cent unplanned absences daily — less than what many B.C. fire departments say they are facing now.

B.C. hospitalization rates are closely following trend lines in Ontario and Quebec, and Otto says they are roughly a week ahead of B.C.’s latest wave.

As of Jan. 12, B.C. reported 500 people were in hospital with COVID-19, including 102 in intensive care. The same day in Ontario, overall hospitalizations from the virus climbed to nearly 3,500, up from 1,290 patients a week earlier. And in Quebec, rising COVID-19 hospitalizations were accompanied by the deaths of 62 people on Tuesday alone.

“I think we’ve just barely started,” said Otto. “We haven’t seen yet the worst ravages of Omicron.”

Otto, who collaborates with the BC COVID Independent Modelling group, says between 2,000 and 10,000 people could land in hospital by the end of the month, though peak hospitalizations are more likely to top out at around 4,000 patients. 

Intensive care unit cases, meanwhile, are expected to surge to over 2,000, nearly triple B.C.’s capacity.

Understanding how and when the biggest wave of COVID-19 cases is going to hit B.C. is vital to help health officials plan. But since Christmas, B.C.’s health authorities have had their testing capacity overwhelmed.

That’s forced modellers like Otto to rely on samples pulled from wastewater facilities in Metro Vancouver and testing rates among older people, who have been prioritized for PCR tests at collection centres. Both metrics have indicated cases are skyrocketing in B.C.

Wastewater data has shown a 10- to 20-fold increase in recent weeks, depending on the facility (the numbers have levelled off in the past few days but Otto says it’s likely due to intense rainfall, which can lead to “wobbly” results).

“The number of people on sick leave would be great data to have. But we haven’t seen that,” said Otto. “Data transparency just helps everybody know where we are. It helps people make everyday decisions in their lives.” 

“We need to get ready.”

MORE TRANSPARENCY NEEDED AROUND COVID-19 STAFF SHORTAGES

Getting ready inevitably means confronting the possibility of not only growing hospitalizations, but the demands that will inevitably ripple across B.C.’s emergency services and threaten to overwhelm a strained system. 

Troy Clifford, union president of Ambulance Paramedics of BC, says staffing shortages stretch back a number of years, with an out-of-service rate approaching 30 per cent during early parts of the pandemic. When a record heat wave hit B.C. in late June, paramedics were swamped with calls like never before.

In the following weeks, stories emerged of bodies piling up in hospital hallways. In July, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced his government would overhaul BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS). But Clifford says ambulances continued to go out of service at growing rates into the fall. Devastating floods, a recent cold spell and a building Omicron wave have only made things worse. 

With so many disasters confronting the province, Clifford says the patchwork of transparency around COVID-19 staff shortages is worrying.  

“I don’t accept that it’s a privacy thing. You’re providing numbers. I think we should be transparent. We should be honest with the public,” said Clifford. “We need to have these tough conversations.” 

In Metro Vancouver, as well as several rural communities across the B.C., absences due to COVID-19 are already wreaking havoc on ambulance crews.

On the evenings of Dec. 7 and 8, nearly half the ambulances scheduled to respond to 911 calls in the Lower Mainland were forced to stand down because of paramedics away on sick leave, said Clifford. 

“If people can’t access 911 or get emergency management in time of need, that’s the whole foundation of the medical system,” he said.

BCEHS, for its part, said 70 paramedics and dispatchers called in sick last Thursday. That’s more than twice the number than on the same day a year earlier. 

“There is no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has put pressure on staffing,” said BCEHS spokesperson Jane Campbell, adding that the ambulance service is monitoring staff sickness in anticipation of a further increase.

But those numbers do not include rural stations, and Clifford says some small communities have been left with one or even no ambulances in recent weeks.

“It’s every community in the province for the most part,” he said of the rising number of ambulances out of service. “It’s the southern Okanagan, Kamloops, Fort St. John — the list could go on.” 

“The more hospitalizations, the more pressure on us.”

With cases expected to climb, Otto says she’s most worried about a “danger period” between the peak in cases and peak hospitalizations. If a large number of emergency workers are still recovering at home, a surge in people needing to get to hospital will inevitably leave many facing a “code red,” with no ambulances available to respond.

Otto’s message to police, firefighters and paramedics: “This is probably going to be the hardest two or three weeks of your career. 

“So thank you.” 

With files from: Brent Richter/North Shore News, Diane Strandberg/Tri-City News, Ian Jaques/Delta Optimist, Jennifer Thuncher/The Squamish Chief, Pedro Arrais/Times Colonist, Cornelia Naylor/Burnaby Now, Theresa McManus/New West Record, Maria Rantanen/Richmond News, Braden Dupuis/Whistler Pique Newsmagazine, and Tim Petruk and Jon Manchester/Castanet.