UPDATED: Greater Victoria hospitals considering hotels for patients as capacity limits reached
An unannounced COVID surge is blending with ongoing staff shortages to create an “extreme overcensus situation” in local hospitals, weeks after COVID measures and regular data sharing were scrapped
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An internal memo sent to staff at Victoria General Hospital on Monday warns that hospitals in the region are too full to accept any new admissions and that emergency steps, like renting hotel rooms, are being considered.
“I am writing to let you all know that we are facing an extreme overcensus situation at all of our acute care sites,” reads the email shared with Capital Daily. “Critical overcensus measures may include having to divert patients from various emergency departments as hospitals cannot accommodate more admissions.”
The first among the measures suggested is “renting a hotel room,” followed by “overtime hours to support discharges.”
Dr. Jeff Unger, an ER physician at Saanich Peninsula Hospital, said all three hospitals in the region had surpassed 100% capacity on Sunday, and over half of all three emergency departments were occupied by admitted patients waiting to be transferred to the ward—thereby rendering them unusable for new ER patients.
“[Royal Jubilee Hospital] was on ambulance diversion much of the evening and night,” Unger told Capital Daily in a text message—meaning incoming patients who should be sent to that hospital were being sent elsewhere. “14 admitted patients were in the [Saanich Peninsula] emergency department occupying 100% of the ED beds, so [the] only place to care for ongoing patients was in makeshift areas like security office, social work room, storage area, and the wait room.”
In a typical ER shift pre-COVID, Unger said ER doctors at Saanich Peninsula would see an average of 68 patients. On Sunday night, he says there were 98.
Part of the increase in hospitalized patients in the past week is a resurgence of COVID-19 in the region. According to Unger, Saanich Peninsula Hospital had 30% more COVID-19 patients in the past week compared to the week before—some admitted because of COVID, and some who tested positive for the virus but were hospitalized for a different reason. Most provincial COVID safety measures, including mask mandates and vaccine passports, have been lifted as of April 8.
A nurse at Royal Jubilee Hospital—who requested to remain anonymous—says the unit they work in has been over capacity for more than a week. According to them, surgeries are being postponed again because surgical units have too many COVID-19 patients. One of the medical units has an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, shared on the Island Health website with no further information; according to the nurse, 11 patients are infected.
Unger, who has been a healthcare worker in Victoria for 22 years, said he has never heard of Island Health requisitioning hotel rooms and points out some hitches with the idea—staff shortages being the biggest problem— “but at least [it’s] thinking outside the box,” he added.
“I’ve never seen it this bad in the 22 years I’ve been working in Victoria,” Unger told Capital Daily two weeks ago, after discussing the rising number of long COVID patients visiting the hospital in recent weeks.
Healthcare workers in Victoria and across BC have been sounding the alarm about how a lack of public health measures could lead to hospitals becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 once more. This time, the system must also care for a large number of patients who developed post-COVID symptoms after the Omicron wave, and can’t find healthcare outside of hospitals.
In previous reporting, Unger told Capital Daily that Victoria’s emergency departments are serving as primary care sites for people with worsening conditions who don’t have a family doctor or couldn’t get into a walk-in clinic.
This surge in patients looking for treatment at hospitals corresponds with staff shortages and burnout, in an industry stretched thin over the past two and half years.
“It's so hard because you're really trying to split yourself between all of the people that are needing you and trying to decide where to go and where to be at that time,” one nurse told Capital Daily in March.
Since the province stopped sharing daily COVID-19 hospitalization data and pulled back on how much information they share, it is impossible to figure out how the virus is affecting hospitalizations in real time.
Update on April 26 at 2:15 pm: On Tuesday at the Legislative Assembly, BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau quoted this article and asked for health minister Adrian Dix’s response.
“At no time would any patient requiring acute care be sent to a hotel room, period,” Dix responded. “The memo that the member refers to was a memo to rehab coordinators who are in charge of discharge …what the memo was saying was if there are people ready to be discharged, let’s take every means to support them in that discharge. That’s what the purpose of the memo was for. It wouldn’t make any sense to put acute care patients in hotel rooms.”
The memo, as we reported, describes a crisis situation “at all of our acute care sites.” It also calls for staff to take “extraordinary measures to facilitate discharges from hospital.” These measures include renting a hotel room and facilitating overtime hours for staff to help with discharges.
“Please do everything you can to facilitate discharge, both from Inpatient/Acute Care and from Outpatient services (in order to free up space for inpatients with expedited discharges),” the memo continues.
Update on April 26 at 3:00 pm: In a statement, Island Health reiterated Minister Dix's position on the purpose of the memo—specifically, that the use of hotels is “part of our regular discharge planning, before and during the pandemic.”
The statement stresses, “To clarify a media report by Capital Daily, there is not and never was a plan to put hospital patients requiring acute care in hotel rooms”—an assertion that was not part of Capital Daily's reporting.
Their statement further acknowledged that “Saanich Peninsula Hospital was briefly (45 min) on ambulance diversion late April 24…Brief diversions happen periodically as part of our well-established plans to respond to unexpected situations.” It does not address our report of an ambulance diversion at Royal Jubilee Hospital on Sunday evening.
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-With files from Zoë Ducklow