British Columbia·Video

Long hours, mounting stress: behind the curtain of COVID-19 red zone in St. Paul's Hospital

It's a rare glimpse a world only seen by health workers and their patients, many of whom are fighting for their lives.

Staff in the downtown Vancouver hospital are feeling the pressure of rising case loads

Health-care workers meet at the St. Paul's Hospital ICU and COVID-19 zones in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Submitted by St. Paul's Hospital)

In the intensive care unit housing COVID-19 patients in St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, health care workers are using an unusual tool to prevent the spread of infection: binoculars.

"We're trying not to go in COVID rooms unless its absolutely necessary," explains Amanda Ow, a respiratory therapist.

Ow says the binoculars come in handy in order to see the small numbers on the breathing machine or the IV pumps. 

Healthcare workers at St. Paul's Hospital are using binoculars to read the monitors in COVID-19 rooms to prevent the spread of infection. (Submitted by St. Paul's Hospital)

In B.C. as of Wednesday, there were 338 patients in hospital, and 75 in intensive care. Most of those patients are concentrated in the Lower Mainland. 

The ICU at St. Paul's Hospital is divided into zones: yellow for suspected COVID-19 cases and red for confirmed positive patients. 

Days are long for health-care workers and start with layers of PPE and health checks. (Submitted by St. Paul's Hospital)

"It's very hard for families. It's very hard for the patients because they're stuck in these rooms, and they just see us with our masks on. [WIth] all the PPE, they don't recognize any of us," Ow said. 

Ow's day, like many other health-care workers in the unit, starts with health screens and layers of personal protective equipment. 

Respiratory therapist describes COVID-19 unit at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver


4 months ago
Amanda Ow, 32, works as a respiratory therapist in the intensive care unit at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver. She describes her experience caring for patients with COVID-19 over the course of 2020. 0:54

These lead to long hours and staff scrambling to save space in rooms and preserve valuable PPE as COVID hospitalizations climb.

Christine Sorensen with the B.C. Nurses' Union says nurses are struggling with mental health concerns as the pandemic progresses.

"We do know that a number of nurses are expressing signs of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, but also moral distress and moving onto PTSD," Sorensen said. 

Patients with COVID-19 in St. Paul's Hospital's Intensive Care Units find it difficult to recognize their health-care providers because of the layers of PPE. (Submitted by St. Paul's Hospital )

Ow says the pressure on the health-care system is building.

"If things get worse, I don't know how we're going to choose who gets treatment and who doesn't. Obviously we're limited with space, we're limited with equipment."

Health-care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic at St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver. (Submitted by St. Paul's Hospital)

Until wide distribution of the vaccine can provide an extra buffer to the health-care system, Ow is urging people to continue to follow the public health  guidelines. 

With files from Jon Hernandez


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?