British Columbia

'We're in big trouble,' says ICU doctor amidst COVID surge in northern B.C.

Critical care doctors in northern B.C. say there's been a dramatic uptick in COVID patients in ICU in the last week. The physicians say almost all of the seriously ill patients are unvaccinated.

Doctor haunted by patients crying 'Don't let me die. I'm scared' before they're intubated

Dr. Alasdair Nazerali-Maitland, right, gears up to train a medical resident and respiratory therapist in intubation procedures. (Contributed by Alasdair Nazerali-Maitland )

Critical care doctors said they've seen a "phenomenal" 400 per cent increase in COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care in Prince George's University Hospital of Northern B.C. in just 10 days.

"It's crazy how fast things have blown up again," Dr. Alasdair Nazerali-Maitland told CBC News.

Between Aug. 23 and Sept. 3, COVID-19 cases in the intensive care unit (ICU) at UNHBC increased from three to 12.

The newly admitted ICU patients range from 30 to 80 years of age, and very few have been vaccinated, Nazerali-Maitland said.

The physician said many of these new patients were transferred to UHNBC from B.C.'s Peace River region, which has the lowest vaccination rate in the province.

"We are in big trouble," said Dr. Lovedeep Khara, an intensive care physician in Prince George. 

She said patients being admitted to UHNBC are coming in "sicker, younger, and requiring ICU and intubation faster than in previous waves."

Khara said before they are intubated, "almost every patient is crying and saying 'Don't let me die. I'm scared.' Those are the words that haunt us all."

Medical gear for intubating patients is at the ready, during an uptick of COVID cases in northern B.C. (Contributed by Dr. Alasdair Nazerali-Maitland)

Nazerali-Maitland said intensive care staff are feeling "battered and bruised. The system that can only handle so much." 

Dr. Simon Rose has worked at UHNBC's ICU since the pandemic began. "We are getting desperate," he said. 

"Intensive care units do not have the capacity to be flooded in a short period of time with an influx of patients... This is all preventable as almost all of our admissions have been unvaccinated cases," Rose told CBC News.

As of last November, there were 23 critical care beds available at UHNBC, with an additional 16 "surge" beds available. Across the entire Northern Health region, there were 41 critical care beds and an additional 23 surge beds.

The ICU doctors spoke to CBC News on Wednesday, the day about 200 people in Prince George rallied against vaccination mandates outside the hospital, as passing vehicles honked in support.

About 200 people rallied against vaccine mandates outside the University Hospital of Northern B.C. in Prince George on Wednesday. (Betsy Trumpener/CBC)

"It's extremely difficult and extremely disheartening caring for these patients that are critically ill and dying of COVID-19 inside the walls of the hospital and looking out the window and seeing freedom of choice rallies outside. We are simply trying to keep people alive," said Rose. 

"We are currently experiencing a surge in cases in the North, and that surge comes with additional hospitalizations,"  Northern Health communications lead Mark Hendricks said in a written statement.

The University Hospital of Northern BC in Prince George (CBC/Betsy Trumpener )

"What we do know is the majority of the cases are people who are not vaccinated or partially vaccinated. That ratio is consistent with hospitalizations as well. The areas with the lowest vaccination rates are seeing greater caseloads than areas with high vaccination rates," said Hendricks.

Nazerali-Maitland said teams of critical care workers are making plans to travel to hard-hit communities in September and October.

"We want to bridge connections in some of the communities where vaccination rates might not be very high."