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B.C. hospital visits up about 200 cases a day amid influenza surge

Province one third of the way through its flu season, Dr. Bonnie Henry says
Daily hospital visits continue to increase in B.C. as cases of respiratory illness surge among kids. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Around 200 more people are checking into B.C. hospitals every day now as compared to September and October, and things are likely to get worse.

Providing an update on the respiratory illness situation Monday (Dec. 5), provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said B.C. is about two to three weeks into its six- to eight-week influenza season. Because the flu is believed to be behind much of the surge in hospitalizations, particularly among children, emergency room visits will likely increase further as the virus heads towards its peak.

In September and October, Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C. was seeing around 6,700 hospital visits a day. In November and the first week of December, that number has jumped to about 6,800-6,900, with most days closer to the latter.

“We’re seeing significant and ongoing pressure on the health-care system,” Dix said.

The greatest of that has been reported in pediatric care units.

In Interior Health, the number of kids visiting emergency departments for respiratory-related issues skyrocketed in November. Throughout the month, 3,300 such pediatric visits were recorded. That’s compared to about 1,350 in an average November.

Much of the increase can be attributed to an earlier spread of influenza, but even compared to a similar stage of the respiratory illness season in past years, this year is particularly bad. In previous years, Interior Health would see around 2,200-2,700 cases.

The jump in cases has translated into long hospital visits. As of early Monday afternoon, the posted wait time at the B.C. Children’s Hospital was about four hours, but parents have reported far longer waits in recent weeks. The hospital opened a satellite emergency clinic in late November to ease some of the pressure, which Dix said will likely remain in place until the end of March.

READ ALSO: BC Children’s Hospital triages patients from E/R due to respiratory illness spike

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Vaccination still the best protection, B.C. says

The province is continuing to push vaccination as the best thing people can do to stay healthy and protect the health-care system from getting more overwhelmed.

So far, more than 1.5 million British Columbians have received this year’s influenza vaccine, according to the executive lead for the vaccine operations program, Dr. Penny Ballem. She said as of Dec. 5 over 50 per cent of people aged 65-plus and 40 to 45 per cent of those with a chronic illness have gotten the vaccine.

The concern among B.C.’s top health officials is that vaccination uptake is far lower among the province’s youngest, and most vulnerable, residents. Just 20 per cent of kids aged five to 11 and 15 per cent of teens have gotten their shot.

Ahead of the holiday season, changing this needs to a priority for parents and caregivers, Henry said. Around 150,000 children are not yet registered in B.C.’s Get Vaccinated system.

Henry said preliminary data shows this year’s influenza vaccine is a strong match for the current circulating strains. Usually, Henry said, this means the vaccine will provide around 50 to 70 per cent protection.

Mask mandate remains off the table

Despite concerns over more kids falling ill, Henry said B.C. still isn’t considering any kind of mask mandate, including in schools. She said a school mandate is “very unlikely to have a significant impact on the trajectory” of this year’s respiratory illnesses and would be too “heavy handed.”

Still, she and Dix are strongly recommending the use of masks, particularly if someone is feeling sick or has been around a sick person. Residents are also encouraged to stay home if they’re sick, wash their hands, cover their coughs and postpone visits to more at-risk people.

READ ALSO: B.C. Green Party leader wants mask mandate in public places reinstated

READ ALSO: B.C. will only consider mask mandate if new major virus emerges: public health officer

Editor’s Note: The increase in daily hospital visits is among all age groups, not just children as this story previously stated.


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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

Hi, I'm a provincial reporter with Black Press Media, where I've worked since 2020.
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