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Dr. Kim: 'Vaccinations will be the way out of this pandemic'

Northern Health's chief medical officer spurred province to enact new health restrictions for northern B.C. to try to curb COVID-19 transmission rates.
21 Dr. Jong Kim - Northern Health chief medical officer
Dr. Jong Kim, chef medical officer for Northern Health, spurred the province to adopt its latest circuit-breaker health restrictions which took effect Friday to try to curb COVID-19 infection rates in northern B.C.

Immunization the way out of pandemic, says Northern Health chief medical officer

Dr. Jong Kim, chief medical officer for Northern Health, says he had no choice but to ask the province to order the drastic health restrictions now affecting the lives of northern B.C. residents.

It was the only way to fight back against a fourth wave of the pandemic that first took hold in late-August and he says it’s a direct result of the failure of people to get their COVID-19 vaccines.

“Northern Heath is going through a very significant pandemic with this fourth wave,” said Kim. “We are seeing with case numbers as well as hospitalization numbers that we have not seen in the second and third wave and we are seeing significant capacity challenges in our hospitals.

“We are having a lot of patients hospitalized and in critical care in the north an almost all of them, especially in critical care, are unimmunized. This pandemic we are having in the fourth wave is really a pandemic of the unimmunized. That’s why the new Northern Health measures really are focusing on reducing the transmission risk among the unimmunized.”

The latest numbers released Monday by the province show Northern Health is still experiencing alarming transmission rates, with 406 news cases confirmed over the three-day period from Friday-Monday and five new deaths in the Northern Health region attributed to the virus - among 26 deaths across the province. The delta variant of the virus led to the death Thursday of a Northern Health patient in their 20s and earlier in the week COVID also claimed the life of a northern B.C. patient in their 30s.

In all of B.C. there were 1,846 new cases over three days for a total of 4,917 active cases in the province. There are currently 360 COVID patients hospitalized, including 151 in intensive care.

As of Monday, there were 21 COVID patients in ICU in Northern Health hospitals, most of them in Prince George. Seventy-four confirmed COVID patients are in northern B.C. hospitals and there are 880 active cases in the region, 96 more than Friday’s total. Kim says staff are working diligently within the health region and with provincial health partners to fill in staffing gaps and find solutions to capacity shortages.

Last week, Northern Health medevacked 58 critically-ill patients from medical centres to hospitals in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island. Northern Health has just 48 intensive care beds in its facilities and staff have been struggling to treat an overload of patients. Of the 45 COVID patients transferred, all but one had not been fully vaccinated.

All but four of the 15 local health areas in the Northern Health region have for the past month been reporting a high number of COVID cases (more than 20 cases per day averaged over a population of 100,000), Case counts are especially high in Prince George, Peace River North and Peace River South, Nechako, Smithers and Quesnel, where immunization rates are lower than the provincial average.

“The additional measures are needed in those communities that have the highest rate of COVID-19 and also, compared to the average, a lower rate of immunizations, which will sustain the pandemic in our communities,” said Kim. “The level of pandemic activity and COVID-19 cases and hospitalized cases from those infections is to the level that it is really impacting our regional health care system and it’s starting to impact the provincial health care system.

“The size of the unimmunized population is the major driver of the size of the burden of COVID-19 in the community. Immunization will be the way out of this pandemic.”

Northern Health accelerated its immunization program in Prince Rupert when case rates and positivity of testing spiked late last winter. From mid-March to early-April vaccines were made available to all adults, while the rest of the province rolled out a gradual age-based system that started vaccinating the oldest people first. Case counts this month have been in the moderate range in Prince Rupert and the city was excluded from the new health restrictions which took effect Friday.

“Prince Rupert is, in a way, a success story because it’s one of the communities during the second wave very impacted by COVID-19,” said Kim.

He said 88 per cent of the residents of Prince Rupert city centre have received their first COVID-19 vaccine doses and 79 per cent have had second doses. In Prince George, depending on what part of the city you live in, the first-dose immunizations range from 74-89 per cent, while fully vaccinated areas of the city range from 56-82 per cent. Kim said rates are lowest in rural parts of Prince George, particularly north and northwest of the city.

“In northern B.C., overall, we generally see lower rates in the rural areas,” said Kim. “One of the factors contributing to that is the convenience and it’s more difficult to access vaccination. We are continuing to use mobile clinics to try to provide low-barrier, easy access to immunization.”

From Oct. 8-14, people not fully vaccinated accounted for 68.3 per cent of COVID cases, and from Oct. 1-14 they accounted for 74.6 per cent of hospitalizations.

Third doses of vaccine have been given to staff and residents of longterm care homes where recent outbreaks have occurred and Jong says Northern Health will continue to be proactive to provide those third doses to high-priority populations while the national and provincial health authorities decide if and when those booster shots will be needed for the general population. With the risk of respiratory illnesses just starting to ramp up with people staying more indoors with the colder weather and shorter days, Jong is hopeful COVID-19 case counts will flatten before the peak of the cold and flu season. He said provincial authorities are planning influenza shots which will be offered at the same time as ongoing COVID vaccination efforts.

Northern Health continues to offer immunization clinics at the Prince George Civic and Conference Centre, 808 Canada Games Way, Wednesdays-Saturdays from 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. The clinics are open for drop-in appointments for people 12 and older. Clinics in outlying areas are also ongoing, with schedules available on the Northern Heath website. COVID-19 immunization clinics | Northern Health

The prevalence of COVID in northern B.C. this fall has taxed the limits of medical staff and reduced the ability of Northern Health’s case and contact management team to monitor outbreaks and get in touch with people who might have come into contact with the virus.

“For the most part of the first wave we tried to reach out to all of the cases and unfortunately that led to a significant backlog of the cases and it started to take longer and longer to get to the cases and it is really reaching the people early on that makes a difference,” said Kim. “So we have focused on catching the priority cases within 24 hours and the rest of the cases we try to catch them (within 72 hours). That has been a change. Right now we are catching most of the them within 72 hours, but after 72 hours we move on to the earlier cases instead of keeping them in he backlog. It’s just a temporary emergency measure we are taking in this part of the pandemic.”