Rapid response team sent to Fort St. James as community grapples with 39 COVID-19 cases

Click to play video: 'Paramedic team deployed to small B.C. community with surge of COVID-19 cases' Paramedic team deployed to small B.C. community with surge of COVID-19 cases
WATCH: A team of specialized paramedics has been sent to a community in northern British Columbia to help deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases. – Dec 10, 2020

A BC Emergency Health Services rapid response team has been deployed to the northern B.C. town of Fort St. James, as the community deals with a “larger” number of COVID-19 cases.

The team of specialized paramedics was developed primarily to transfer patients between hospitals, and this is the first time it has been mobilized.

It was also apparently the first public indicator, even to residents of the small town of about 1,500, that transmission had gotten worse in the community.

There are now 39 confirmed cases in the area, according to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Dix said 20 people have been hospitalized in a ratio he called “significant.”

“It reflects the relative vulnerability from the cases, and secondly, it reflects what we do, particularly in more remote communities, is bring people closer into hospital and the majority of cases that would be Prince George Regional Hospital,” Dix said.

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That’s part of the provincial strategy for remote, rural and Indigenous communities to ensure that patients are closer to care than they would be at home, in case their conditions suddenly deteriorate, he added.

Three people, he said, have been transported to Vancouver Island and one to Metro Vancouver.

Click to play video: 'Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine first in British Columbia?' Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine first in British Columbia?
Who will get the COVID-19 vaccine first in British Columbia? – Dec 9, 2020

As for whether public health would be notifying a small community of increased transmission sooner in the future, Henry said that’s already done in the form of contact tracing.

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Northern Health said the recent surge of cases in the region is putting a strain on its contact-tracing resources — and as a result, it will have to alter its strategy.

“(Northern Health) is shifting to gathering information on, and notifying, close contacts only in certain situations (including health care workers, including those in long-term care; cases related to industrial projects, and in First Nations communities, and; those that are part of a known cluster or outbreak),” the health authority posted on its website.

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“This will ensure public health can respond quickly to developing clusters of cases or potential outbreaks for those that are most vulnerable.”

Read more: COVID-19 positivity rate higher for B.C. First Nations than other communities: health officials

Meanwhile, the surge has members of the nearby Nak’azdli Whut’en Nation worried.

“We have initiated a voluntary shut-down of our community and school and are asking people to stay home except for essential matters such as work, buying essentials and keeping important appointments,” Chief Aileen Prince told Global News.

“Many of our families are impacted and there are a lot of people worried about loved ones in the hospital or in isolation.”

Prince said she’s also concerned for those working in health care.

“Our local health and front-line workers are tired but we don’t have relief workers and I’m worried they are not getting the rest they need,” Prince said.

“I and many others are grateful for the BC EHS assistance and everyone is doing everything in their power to keep people cared for and safe.”

Read more: Coronavirus: B.C. positivity rate ‘concerning’, but threshold for restrictions not useful, says SFU epidemiologist

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An outbreak has not been declared in Fort St. James, Henry said.

She did, however, announce that B.C. will release localized COVID-19 data more frequently. Previously, the province only updated a map showing the number of cases by health region each month. Now it will be each week.

“Because we’re now at a point where you can’t re-identify somebody by the geographic area that they live in because of the number of cases we’ve had,” she said.

The province had previously rebuffed requests from journalists, data scientists and a group of Lower Mainland mayors asking for more frequent localized data, citing privacy reasons.

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Henry and Premier John Horgan have also said they didn’t want to give a false sense of security to people living in regions with smaller case numbers.

Read more: Metro Vancouver mayors facing COVID-19 surge call for more regional data

A BC Emergency Health Services spokesperson told Global News it had received 33 911 calls in six days — when normally there’s only 50-60 in a month.

“What surprised the team were a couple of encounters on the street. Bystanders recognizing they were paramedics and asking, ‘Are you the team? Thank you for being here,'” Shannon Miller said in an email.

Global News has requested comment from the District of Fort St. James.

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