B.C. is entering a fall and winter season with combined effects of seasonal influenza and COVID-19, and the health ministry is expanding its hospital bed and immunization capacity to prepare.
Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry laid out their preparations Sept. 9, including additional health care hiring and ramping COVID-19 testing up to 20,000 tests a day. Currently B.C. has capacity for about 6,000 tests a day.
The objective is to get through the winter influenza season and treat coronavirus patients without cancelling scheduled surgeries or restricting hospital services as was done in the early months of the pandemic this year. Seasonal influenza has caused a significant spike in hospital admissions in previous winters.
Dix said the expansion of health care services will add thousands of new jobs in long-term care and other key positions, with on-the-job training available for people who have lost their jobs in tourism and service industries. The positions begin with a paid training program at $20 an hour, “with fully qualified health care assistants earning approximately $23 an hour.”
Henry said Australia and other southern hemisphere countries are seeing a relatively mild seasonal influenza season as their winter progresses, partly due to increased vaccination. The influenza vaccine will not be mandatory, and there are no mandatory vaccines in B.C. or anywhere in Canada, Henry said.
Dix said the federal government supports the program to expand influenza vaccine, with a supply of high-dose vaccine designated for all long-term care and assisted living patients.
The health ministry has purchased an extra 450,000 doses of influenza vaccine, for almost two million vaccinations. There will be an October advertising campaign for high-risk people to get the shot. As suspected influenza cases are also tested for COVID-19, the ministry is adding more contact tracing staff to identify and contain community exposures.
The province announced in April that it is adding 55 more ground ambulances and an aircraft to support rural and remote health care. The ministry says that will be in place by October, to improve transport to B.C.’s 19 COVID-19 treatment centres in larger centres around the province.
The ministry has added $1.6 billion to its budget this year, to allow hiring of up to 2,000 additional staff to provide better infection prevention and control practices and senior care facilities. About $800 million of that additional money has already been announced to implement single-site employment for care home workers, and to increase contact tracing for coronavirus infections.