British Columbia

Rapid-response paramedics sent to Fort St. James, B.C., after 40 test positive for COVID-19

The province has sent a rapid response team of paramedics to Fort St. James, B.C., where at least 40 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the community of around 1,500.

Medical staff in district have received 33 calls in 6 days, when monthly average is 50-60

The Stuart Lake Hospital in Fort St. James is a small acute care centre. Patients with serious cases of COVID-19 are being sent to hospitals in Prince George and Vanderhoof. (Tayler Hansen Photography)

The province has sent a rapid-response team of paramedics to Fort St. James, B.C., where at least 40 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the community of around 1,500, according to the Northern Health authority.

The number of test positives was originally reported as 60 cases, based on early numbers from B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS).

The critical care team of four specialized paramedics from Vancouver arrived in the northern central B.C. district on Wednesday. They will assist local paramedics who responded to 95 medical calls in November — the most of any month this year, BCEHS spokesperson Sarah Morris said in an email.

Medical staff have received 33 calls in just six days, when the monthly average is between 50 and 60, Morris added. The community has just one small acute care facility. 

Ski resort manager Jana Gainor is one of the 40 cases in Fort St. James, having tested positive in late November. She said the small-town nature of her community has made it difficult to control the spread of the virus.

"We are in each other's [social] bubble. It's a lot harder to be separate from people," Gainor told CBC on Thursday. "We have two grocery stores and that's it."

This is the first time the rapid-response team, which was created as part of the province's pandemic response efforts, has been deployed to a community.

Their primary role will be to assist in transporting patients with COVID-19 out of the community and to support local paramedics. They are expected to remain in the community for four days, BCEHS said. 

Local paramedics are "overwhelmed with calls" and the rapid response team is intended to support "burned out" workers, Mayor Bob Motion said in an email.

"It goes without saying there is a great deal of concern in Fort St. James, especially within the First Nations communities in the area," Motion wrote. 

Fort St. James family doctor Marile van Zyl said the presence of specialized paramedics from Vancouver has made the small community feel supported.

"We feel like a big portion of our daily struggles have now been solved by this team being sent out to us," she said.

On Thursday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told CBC News the spread of COVID-19 in small communities has been "a challenge."

"As we know, there's been a dramatic increase in people with COVID, and that has put some strain on the hospitals, particularly in some of the smaller communities," she said.

"So the paramedics have been deployed to take up some of that strain [and] make sure that we can safely transport people that need it to the right health-care facility to get the care they need."

Critical care capacity in Northern B.C. Surge beds are meant to be used in short-term emergencies and not as part of regular operations. (CBC)

'Every bit of help we can get is appreciated'

On Wednesday, the Nak'azdli Whut'en First Nation announced it would shut down for at least two weeks in an effort to help the community lower its rate of transmission as its health-care system is "stretched to the max."

"We are experiencing something we have never seen before, but our past generations have," the community said in a statement.

"They knew to isolate themselves and to sanitize everything, including themselves. We need to be as courageous and committed to our safety as they were. We don't want to lose any more to this virus."

Community members are being asked to limit their contact with others, wear masks, and designate one family member to do shopping and run errands.

Patients are being sent to hospitals in Prince George and Vanderhoof, and the community is working with Northern Health and the B.C. First Nations Health Authority, Chief Aileen Prince said. 

She said she hopes these measures can reduce the spread of the virus and provide some "reprieve" to the community before Christmas. 

"There's quite a few people sick and going into the hospital and the community is very worried," Prince said.

"Every bit of help that we can get is appreciated."