The Elk Valley Hospital is adapting to meet the needs of patients in the Elk Valley.

Local COVID-19 cases unknown amid second wave

The Elk Valley Physicians have again reminded locals to comply with public health orders to stay safe

The pandemic has well and truly arrived in Fernie and the Elk Valley according to local health workers, but the number of local positive cases remains a mystery even to them.

Dr Tara Chalmers-Nixon, who works at the Elk Valley Hospital and is also the president of the Elk Valley Medical Staff Association told The Free Press that rising numbers reported by Interior Health were unfortunately opaque when it came to local exposure.

“The local health area numbers are not being released publicly,” she said, adding it was an issue for local health providers who needed to know more about what they were up against, and so the community could be more aware and alert.

“The reality is we have a small community and I don’t know the actual numbers in the Fernie local health area, and they have not been released to physicians.”

Transparency has been an issue for a while, with the Mayor of Sparwood, David Wilks, remarking recently that communities shouldn’t have to learn about local exposures from the media. “We’re not out here to identify people that have COVID-19, but we do want to know what exists in our general vicinity,” he said.

The most recent data from provincial health authorities on local health delivery areas is lagging well behind provincial and regional reporting, leaving local health providers blind.

According to the BCCDC, there have been 10 cases within the Fernie local health delivery area (which includes Sparwood and Elkford) since the beginning of the pandemic – but that data was last updated at the end of October, meaning it doesn’t include any cases from the last month since lock-down measures have been enacted in response to the second wave.

Data for regional reporting is more up to date, but less helpful locally, with the East Kootenays (which includes Cranbrook, Kimberley, Windermere and Golden) having 39 positive cases between Nov. 13 and Nov. 26. Looking back over the data reveals a spike, with the cumulative total of infections for East Kootenay since the pandemic began in January being 92 – meaning more than a third of all infections in East Kootenay occurred over a two-week period.

Dr Chalmers-Nixon said it was important for local physicians and healthcare providers to know about how many positive cases there were locally in order for the community to be able to dial in to the seriousness of the local situation.

“We have such a small community that even if we have only a dozen people that get infected with COVID -if they’re not self-isolating, quarantining – then there’s a high likelihood of transmission.”

She explained the delay between COVID-19 exposure and the potential of lasting illness meant that the healthcare system was vulnerable when you break down the raw numbers, because if only five per cent of folks within the local health area get infected, that meant there would be 900 people with COVID-19, and of them, 180 would need hospital care and 90 would need higher-level medical care.

“We don’t have ICU beds in Fernie hospital (and) Cranbrook has six to 11 with surge capacity … we can’t have all those people sick at the same time because once somebody is sick and ends up in ICU, they don’t leave.

“It’s not a quick turnaround. The patients that end up in ICU, the average length of stay depending on the community is 18 to 21 days.”

Interior Health did not answer queries from The Free Press on the number of local cases before publication.

Issues with reporting and transparency aside, Dr Chalmers-Nixon said that community compliance with public health orders was very good in Fernie, adding that folks that were against the orders were better off ignored.

“I feel that the majority of people are really following the guidance of Dr. (Bonnie) Henry, and I am proud of that. I think that there are definitely a few people that want to stir the pot, and the reality is I can’t spend time thinking about that.

“We should focus on those people that are doing the right thing, and congratulate them for doing the right thing.”

For her part, she said that Christmas plans in her family were being tightened up to her immediate household in order to reduce risk, and encouraged others to do the same.

READ MORE: B.C.’s COVID-19 infection count climbs back up to 656
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