As hundreds in Nelson were demonstrating against the provincial government’s plan for vaccine passports, an impossible choice was being made.
Taryn O’Genski, a registered nurse in the emergency room at Castlegar and District Community Health Centre, was working when a woman arrived in need of what O’Genski says was advanced breathing support.
The centre is a relatively small facility and has no intensive care unit. The two isolation rooms it has were occupied by patients diagnosed with COVID-19, one of whom was a 51-year-old man who wasn’t vaccinated.
The woman, O’Genski said, had to be sent to Trail’s Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital (KBRH).
She later died there.
O’Genski thinks the woman may have been saved if the hospital had the resources being used by COVID patients.
In a pandemic that has now gone on 17 months with no end in sight, this is now a regular dilemma in B.C. hospitals.
“The reality is that these are the choices that we’re having to make, and I’m much more inclined to be helping someone who’s vaccinated, with breast cancer, and going through chemotherapy than a 51-year-old who’s like, ‘Why does it matter if I got vaccinated?’ ”
After the Sept. 1 protests that were held throughout B.C. and advertised as being in support of health care workers, the Nelson Star interviewed 10 doctors and nurses working in Nelson, Castlegar and Trail. Every one of them reacted to the demonstrations with anger, frustration and disappointment.
Dr. Mike Van Vliet, who works in the emergency room at KBRH, and previously spent five years in the ER at Nelson’s Kootenay Lake Hospital (KLH), described the protests as “a kick in the teeth.
“We’ve been working so hard, and then to see people out there [protesting] without masks, and continuing to say that this is a hoax and a joke and isn’t real … I’m a bit embarrassed by it.”
A Castlegar native, Van Vliet comes from a family of local physicians. His father was a doctor for 35 years. His sister works as a radiologist, and another as a nurse practitioner. His mother is a retired nursing instructor at Selkirk College.
Daily, he’s disappointed in patients who haven’t taken the pandemic seriously or are yet to be vaccinated.
“We are making hard decisions right now on who can safely go home, who needs to be admitted, who needs to go to ICU, who needs to be put on a ventilator, and then, when we are full, where we need to send them – Kelowna, Penticton, Cranbrook, or another site that is not at capacity.
“It is making my difficult job as an ER physician a lot harder, and my empathy is running out for the patients who are not vaccinated.”
The West Kootenay went mostly untouched by COVID-19 throughout 2020, but an outbreak in the province’s Interior has seen new cases skyrocket in 2021.
The Nelson health area, which includes nearby Salmo and parts of the Slocan Valley, has had 454 cases since July 25, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control. Cases are also surging in Castlegar, Trail, Creston and Grand Forks.
On Aug. 23, the provincial government announced at least one dose of vaccine will be required for people visiting restaurants, movies and ticketed sports events as of Sept. 13. Those restrictions change to two doses on Oct. 24.
Dr. Dharma McBride, a Nelson family physician and vice-chair of Kootenay Boundary Division of Family Practice, supports the right to protest, but also believes the government is out of options.
“I really don’t know how as a society we’re going to get through this pandemic unless we reach COVID immunity via vaccination, and if this helps move the needle a little bit, maybe it’ll be seen as a success. I think we’re going to have a lot of soul-searching in terms of how we got to that place.”
Castlegar’s Dr. Megan Taylor calls the protests “farcical.” She supports the passport, which she believes will push more British Columbians to get vaccinated. There’s evidence to show she’s right – the number of first doses rose by 90 per cent in the week after the passport was announced.
“I honestly feel a little bit sad that people are motivated to get a vaccine to go to a restaurant, and not to protect the health of themselves and those around them. But if that’s what it takes, great.”
Nelson’s Dr. Lauren Galbraith said she was disheartened by the protests, but relieved they didn’t occur outside local hospitals. In Kelowna, scenes of a crowd outside the hospital there, blocking the path of an ambulance, went viral.
“It’s tough when people’s decisions are affecting other people’s health. This small group of individuals, for whatever reason, can’t seem to wrap their head around.”
A sore point for the doctors and nurses interviewed focuses on the people claiming they were supporting health care workers while also refusing to wear masks, get vaccinated, or follow a public health mandate.
A registered nurse at KLH, Cam Butler was disappointed to be lumped in with a cause he does not support.
“We live in a country where we have freedom of speech and choice, and all those things, and protesting for what you believe in, objectively, is great and I support that.
“It just comes at a challenging time when we’ve been working against this pandemic for a year and a half … and we all just want it to be over. I feel this is kind of like a step in the wrong direction.”
For Dusty Portz, a registered nurse in Castlegar, being vaccinated is a key element to working in public health.
“I know the huge majority of people really actually do care and are doing the right thing. This is just a small minority of outspoken people who for some reason think they’re warriors for humanity, when really they’re just putting us backwards.”
Other doctors and nurses interviewed expressed outrage that some colleagues, who they did not name, were at the demonstration.
Ty Wright, a registered nurse in Castlegar, said those health care workers did not speak for the majority of nurses.
“It’s shocking to me that there’s so many people who are just caught in this loop of protecting their rights and freedoms when it’s not even really a restriction of the rights and freedoms in the grand scheme of things.”
But not everyone has lost hope.
Lisa Keech, a registered nurse in Trail, is critical of the protests and any health care workers who took part, especially as there is now ample evidence to show the seriousness of the pandemic.
“I can’t believe that our communities are going to be divided. People are going to see that their lives really aren’t going to be that impacted … and most people are doing the right thing.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story stated Taryn O’Genski worked at Nelson’s Kootenay Lake Hospital. O’Genski actually works in Castlegar.
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