COVID-19 ‘is our new normal,’ says VCH director

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) director Gerry Latham said she is trying to get as many staff on vacation before more cases of COVID-19 hit the Sunshine Coast.

She had expected to have two months of reprieve from the virus but isn’t so sure anymore.

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“We’re not going to have a vaccine by this fall, we’re not going to have a vaccine, I believe, by the beginning of 2021,” she told Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) directors. “COVID is not going away. COVID is our new normal.”

Latham provided a glimpse into the sweeping changes to the local health authority’s operations since the start of the pandemic during a July 23 Sunshine Coast Regional Hospital District meeting.

She said the legacy for the local health authority and community has been the response to the changes that have been hitting the health-care system since March. “The physicians stepped up like I have not seen in my career,” she said, in reference to the Sunshine Coast Physicians Task Force, which formed in the early days of the crisis to work alongside VCH.

Latham and the nursing leadership team worked with the task force “every moment of every day” to prepare.

Some of the highest anxiety moments, she said, were early on. “This was new, this was new to everybody. When we got our first case, we all sat here for about five minutes and went, OK, and then it was ‘game’s on, we’re ready.’ And we were ready.”

That preparation will be needed again. Latham told directors she feels COVID-19 “nipping at our heels again,” but “we’re obviously much more prepared than we were five months ago.”

She also thanked the Sechelt Hospital Foundation and Sunshine Coast Healthcare Auxiliary for their donations of $100,000 each. “I didn’t have to ask, I just had to write down what we needed. Our community was incredible, they just stepped up.”

That included the need for far more personal protective equipment. “Every one of our staff had to wear scrubs,” she said. “That’s not the norm.” However it’s something she expects will continue on.

They have “just about” spent the $200,000 and it was a “relief” to have it.

She also described some of the transformations at the hospital.

“We discharged and had a vacant unit, a vacant CCU, within three days. Unheard of. Absolutely unheard of.”

Another decision they made was to stick with the four ventilators already at the hospital so that the centres with higher case numbers could be prioritized.

Instead, they made quick decisions to move people off Coast before they needed intubation, relying on extra helicopter transport.

“That’s what worked extremely well for us,” she said. “Lions Gate had our back, VGH, St. Paul’s – they were all willing and ready to take patients from any of us who were running rural hospitals.”

Latham also said that she and shíshálh Nation are working together weekly to build a “collaborative plan” to face COVID-19.

Gibsons director David Croal asked at the meeting about the “exhaustion level” of staff and resources for staff dealing with stress. Latham said counsellors are available and a program is in place to provide support. Some staff are taking stress leave, and COVID-19 is “a factor.”

Another resource was virtual “med talks” offered by the Hospital Foundation, which provided tools to manage stress.

She also noted staff at the Shorncliffe and Totem Lodge long-term care facilities have needed to access those services because doors are opening to visitors again. “That is creating huge anxiety for the staff because they’ve wrapped those two facilities in bubble wrap for the last five months,” she said.

Keeping visitors out has been “tremendously hard” on the residents and families, and because of that they had to reopen, said Latham, “but we also know we can be extremely careful and yet the virus can get in.”

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