British Columbia

Front-line workers at epicentre of B.C.'s COVID-19 crisis say colleagues, promise of vaccine keep them going

More cases of the virus have been reported in the Fraser Health region than all other provincial health regions combined.

More cases have been reported in Fraser Health region than rest of province combined

Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. spokesperson Dave Leary says the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid crisis have made for an onslaught of calls and very little time to decompress between them for first responders, especially in the Fraser Health region. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

For paramedics on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis, taking a moment to decompress after a harrowing call before gearing up for the next one can be critical for maintaining mental health.

But in the Fraser Health Authority region right now, those breaks are few and far between.

The Lower Mainland continues to see the highest transmission of the disease, with more cases of the virus reported in the Fraser Health region — which includes the cities of Surrey, Burnaby, Abbotsford and Coquitlam — than the other four regions combined.

As the second wave of the pandemic batters the suburban regions of Metro Vancouver, those scrambling to save lives say it's their colleagues in the trenches, and the promise of a vaccine, that are giving them the strength to carry on.

"We can see there will be a light at the end of the tunnel," said Dave Leary, spokesperson for Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., on CBC's The Early Edition on Thursday.

'We talk about our stresses in the day and and we lean on each other,' says a spokesperson representing paramedics. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

But right now, Leary said paramedics are not only going to work with the fear of bringing home the virus, they're also dealing with a "never-ending" onslaught of overdose calls due to the concurrent opioid crisis.

"We don't have the amount of time we need in between calls to decompress," said Leary. "The mental health toll is quite high."

Staff, he said, are leaning on one another, and employer stress programs, for support.

According to Leary, there is also a current staffing crisis among B.C. paramedics, meaning colleagues are stepping up to cover service gaps for one another and still respond to calls as quickly as possible.

And when they do pull up to area hospitals with a patient in need, the scene can be very, very busy.

A Nov. 15 fire at Burnaby Hospital meant staff had to relocate patients immediately while also being cognizant of the risk of spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. (CBC News/Ryan Stelting)

On Nov. 24, Burnaby Hospital, one of the region's busiest, stopped taking most new admissions after a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, which came a little more than a week after a Nov. 15 fire in the building.

While the fire disruption did not definitively cause further virus spread, it caused stress for hospital staff who had to relocate patients safely on the fly.

"It is a bit stressed in terms of not only the availability of beds, but also staff availability as well. But we just hold on," said respirologist Susan Kwan.

Kwan said given the dire situation in the region right now, and the stress it is causing the public and patients, it is more important than ever for front-line workers to stay positive to reduce fear.

Like the paramedics bringing patients to the doors, Kwan said much of the staff on the other side of those doors are turning to one another to keep morale high.

"We are cautiously proceeding and the staff is still in good spirits overall," said Kwan on The Early Edition on Friday. 

When hospital employees have been isolated at home because of virus exposure, there has been incredible support from colleagues who check in regularly to offer support and prayer, Kwan told CBC on Monday.

Motorists wait to enter a Fraser Health COVID-19 testing facility, in Surrey, B.C., on Nov. 9. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

By Kwan's last count on Nov. 27, 44 staff members at Burnaby Hospital had tested positive for COVID-19.

"This is a battle that we are all fighting together," she said. "Without collegial cohesion, it would be much harder."

It's not just the custodians, nurses, transporters, doctors, therapists, dietitians and pharmacists where Kwan works that are helping each other out, Kwan says, but also teams at other hospitals in the region.

Kwan said after the Nov. 15 fire, staff had to relocate some patients and reduce bed availability. Other hospitals admitted patients Burnaby had no space for, and Kwan says the favour will be repaid if required.

"If we have any capacity, we will be willing to help," said Kwan.

There are now 8,796 people with active COVID-19 cases in B.C. out of 33,894 cases to date. The Fraser Health region has 6,430 of those active cases.

The next update of cases is at 3 p.m. PT Wednesday.


Tap here to listen to the complete interview with Dave Leary and here to listen to Dr. Susan Kwan on CBC's The Early Edition.

With files from The Early Edition

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