British Columbia to announce changes to understaffed ambulance service after heat wave

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An ambulance on duty during extremely hot weather in Vancouver on June 30, 2021.

DON MACKINNON / AFP / Getty Images

British Columbia’s health minister promises changes to understaffed ambulance service after the province’s emergency response system stranded hundreds in heat wave without previous.

Adrian Dix told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday that improvements will be announced Wednesday to the body overseeing the province’s more than 4,500 paramedics, emergency call takers and dispatchers after 777 sudden deaths were reported during last month’s ‘thermal dome’ – which is almost four times the average number of people who have died during this period in recent years.

Prime Minister John Horgan again said on Tuesday that there was no way to prepare for such an event “once every 1,000 years”, but authorities should have been better prepared, and he pledged that ‘they would be as the unusually hot summer continues. .

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British Columbia’s chief coroner is analyzing the deaths and, in the coming weeks, will release a report explaining how and why so many people perished amid the heat.

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Paramedics Union says British Columbia spent years predicting a major earthquake and this recent crisis exposed huge systemic flaws in the system, including understaffing, poor leadership and working conditions unattractive for recruiting new employees, as well as high levels of burnout among frontline workers in multiple public health emergencies.

Family members of those who died said they struggled to get an answer when they dialed 911 and waited hours for a rescuer to attend to their loved ones.

Maura De Freitas’ half-brother Kevin Butler was among hundreds of people who died between June 25 and July 1 in the record-breaking heat wave in which temperatures in the province reached 49.6 ° C. in Lytton, where a fire destroyed the village and killed two residents.

Kevin Butler on a ferry from False Creek to Vancouver. Butler died on June 29, 2021 at the age of 68.

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Mr. Butler, 68, was autistic and lived at the Renfrew Care Center in Vancouver. He lived with Mrs De Freitas and worked as a diver, until health problems made him paraplegic and required constant care.

The Renfrew Care Center, like many residential units across the province, did not have an air conditioning unit during the heatwave week, Ms. De Freitas said. There was a fan and Mrs De Freitas bought an extra fan for her half-brother’s room, which she then gave to the house.

Mr. Butler was ill during the heatwave, and on June 28, staff called an ambulance to take him to a nearby hospital. It took 10 hours for one of them to arrive, Ms De Freitas said.

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“Something absolutely has to be done here,” she said. “It is very painful as a family member to know that he has suffered so much.”

When she arrived at the hospital, she learned from a doctor that Mr. Butler had suffered heatstroke and may have had a brain hemorrhage and a minor heart attack. He died on the night of June 29.

“I would love to have the opportunity to take her in her wheelchair, just to feel the sun on her face,” she said. “For two years he hasn’t been out.

The BC Coroners Service said it had not confirmed all of the 777 deaths were caused by the extreme heat. This number is almost four times the average for the same period over the previous five years.

More information on the deaths – such as where they occurred and the populations hardest hit – will not be available for several weeks as the coroner’s office continues its inquest, spokesman Ryan Panton said. in an email. But, he added, anecdotally, many of these deaths appear to be of elderly people living alone during the heat wave.

Isobel Mackenzie, the provincial spokesperson for seniors, said the province should compile a list of all people 80 and over who live alone to distinguish those who have less support and who may need to be verified – by phone or in person – during the next Heat Wave. Authorities should also create benchmarks to identify when the heat makes people uncomfortable about a potentially dangerous and fatal event.

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Extreme heat can be very dangerous for older people, whose bodies don’t tolerate drastic temperatures very well, said Terry Lake, CEO of the BC Care Providers Association. Seniors with cognitive impairments may not even be aware that they are suffering from heat stroke or heat exhaustion, which is why people who live alone are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures. .

Mr Lake, a former provincial health minister under the last Liberal government, said seniors tend to be safer in retirement homes and care facilities as staff watch them. During the heat wave, staff could make sure residents were hydrated, had fresh towels, and noted if a resident needed medical attention. Still, he acknowledged that many homes in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland did not have air conditioning units, as it is unusual for temperatures to rise this high in the summer.

Ahead of Mr Dix’s press conference on Tuesday, his staff acknowledged in an email that the province’s ambulance service had to “do better” and attributed its difficulties to “a decade of government underinvestment. previous ”.

On Tuesday, Mr Horgan, who has been in office for four years, blamed the deaths in part on the dysfunctional system inherited from the former Liberal government and said the New Democrats had since invested in more paramedics and ambulances.

To date, according to Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC union, who said up to a quarter of its members are now seeking mental health treatment after a critical incident at work, are not receiving treatment for injuries. physical or are in the process of filing a workers’ compensation claim due to workplace pressures.

Another major problem with the response, he said, was that emergency health services did not activate their more severe crisis protocols until the fourth day of the heat wave – at that time. , the use of its new range of tools to increase staff accordingly was moot.

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Mr Clifford, who has been meeting with the Minister of Health since last week, said he was optimistic. Wednesday’s announcement will result in more hires and a change to a guard system for new hires that penalizes them with a salary of $ 2 they wait to be sent to remote areas.

Many people in the province have reported hours of waiting for an ambulance during the heat wave and criticized the government’s handling of the crisis.

Savita Ahuja’s father, Gian Goel, 71, died on June 27 while waiting for an ambulance to arrive for 90 minutes. Mr Goel, who lives in Surrey, was not feeling well that day and continued to sleep and wake up. In the evening, his wife realized he had a fever. She called an ambulance around 7 p.m. and then called her son and daughter-in-law, who is a nurse. Soon after, they had to start performing CPR on her.

Ms. Ahuja’s mother ran outside and started screaming for help, prompting her neighbors to call 911 again. However, the ambulance did not arrive until shortly after 8:30 p.m. Ms Ahuja, who is in India on sabbatical, said if the ambulance had arrived sooner, her father would still be alive.

“We have to change how the system works,” said Ms. Ahuja. “We can’t let this happen to more people.”

Ms Ahuja said her father is her best friend – they talk every day and he is planning a trip to visit her in India next month. She said he was funny and reliable.

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Years ago, when Nickelback was just a young garage band in Langley, they approached Mr. Goel, who worked with computers, and told him they needed a computer to do music but they couldn’t afford it. He gave them one and said they could just pay it back in monthly installments, recalls Ms. Ahuja.

“He would do just about anything for anyone,” Ms. Ahuja said. “He always helped people.

James Liebenberg, president of West Coast Seniors Housing Management, which operates the care center that housed Mr Butler, said he could not comment on an individual’s medical history. But he said staff from the 24 homes the company operates worked during the heat wave to make sure residents were hydrated and cared for.

Mr Liebenberg said that although some of the houses operated by the company are air conditioned, they are only found in certain rooms as the buildings were built before these extreme weather conditions. He said it was essential to increase funding for nursing home staff, as well as the infrastructure to install and maintain the air conditioning units.

“I really hope that we as a society … will express this concern for the elderly in our willingness to invest in this industry to help them,” said Liebenberg.

Mr Butler has died after a year of limited contact with his family due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ms De Freitas said she noticed the isolation caused Mr Butler’s cognitive well-being to decline and she tried sending him postcards and small gifts to cheer him up.

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“I don’t even know if he was recording it,” she said. “But you know, I had to do something.”

In the days following the death of her half-brother, Ms. De Freitas reflected on her moments of joy with him. Mr. Butler loved country and western music and enjoyed watching hockey, car racing and baseball. His half-sister said he was “a very gentle, very gentle soul” who “felt very deep”.

“It was such a privilege to walk alongside him,” said Ms. De Freitas. “My life has been enriched.

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