With rising case counts and hospitalizations, newly-ordered measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in bars, restaurants, nightclubs and banquet halls, as well as the added dynamic of students heading back to school, the Province of British Columbia released its fall pandemic preparedness plan in an afternoon news conference featuring Premier John Horgan, Health Minister Adrian Dix, and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. All of this as the Premier further fuels speculation that British Columbians could be heading to an early election – possibly within the next two months.

The Government of BC announced a $1.6 billion investment in the health care system, which will fund:

  • Hiring up to 7,000 new health care workers and support staff;
  • Increasing influenza and COVID-19 testing capacity to 20,000 tests per day;
  • Expanding access to the flu vaccine; and,
  • Launching a “Hospital at Home” program to provide eligible patients with around-the-clock care under the supervision of a hospital while remaining in their homes.

The province also released its fall/winter 2020/21 health care sector plan for the management of COVID-19, which focuses on sustaining efforts to restart the health system after the spring, improving system performance, and responding to COVID-19 across the province.

Hiring more health workers
The Ministry of Health is dedicating $44.1 million to recruit up to an additional 7,000 health care workers in long-term care and assisted living facilities. Recruitment will be open to all British Columbians, but will be specifically targeted at former hospitality and service sector employees now out of work due to COVID-19. The program will provide a path for applicants to receive formal on-the-job training as health care support workers, with paid training leading to a full qualification as a health care assistant. Janitorial, maintenance, and food service staff positions will also be available through this program.

Increasing testing capacity
In preparation for flu season, British Columbia has begun to build out testing capacity to address the need to quickly assess COVID-19 cases. Dr. Henry acknowledged that increasing from the current capacity of 8,000-10,000 tests per day to 20,000 tests per day will be a challenge due to global demand for testing equipment and supplies.

Expanding the fall immunization campaign
In addition to federal funds received to support provincial influenza vaccinations, the province will have approximately 2 million doses of the flu vaccine available for British Columbians, an increase of 450,000 doses from the 2019/20 flu season. This includes 45,000 doses of the Fluzone High Dose vaccine for all long-term care and assisted living facility residents.

The $18.8 million dedicated to building out the fall flu immunization campaign is part of $374 million earmarked for public health measures to further protect vulnerable British Columbians.

While Minister Dix and Dr. Henry did not say explicitly that the vaccine would be made available free-of-charge for all British Columbians, Dr. Henry did note that there are few individuals who do not qualify for a free vaccine, a point with which many British Columbians might disagree.

She said that in her ideal world, everyone would be able to walk into a pharmacy and get the flu vaccine for free. We’ve recently seen Dr. Henry’s ability to create political will on public health issues, evidenced by the Premier’s recent call for illicit drug decriminalization, and expect to hear more about the province’s flu vaccine roll-out as British Columbians start to seek out immunizations at pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and public health clinics.

Hospital at Home
This new care model is part of a broader bed management strategy to reduce inpatient demand for hospital beds and protect vulnerable patients from developing COVID-19 in hospital. Patients meeting the criteria will be offered around-the-clock care at home, rather than staying at a hospital, while remaining under the hospital’s direct care. This program will be piloted initially at Victoria General Hospital and roll out to other acute care facilities in the coming months.

As part of the bed management strategy, the province is also putting in place a planned surge bed capacity to lower the chances of needing to reduce access to care. Instead of a system-wide shut-down, as was seen in the spring approach to elective surgeries, the province will be using a staged approach to manage surges in demand regionally. This will allow the province to continue to make gains on reducing the surgical backlog while not adding additional patients to the queue.

Will there be a fall election?
While Premier Horgan continues to dodge questions about his intentions for a fall election, he did provide some insight into how the government could be brought down if it is his intention to do so. While the Confidence and Supply Agreement (CASA) he signed with the Green Party states that only a defeat on a confidence motion in the legislature would trigger a request to bring down the government, Premier Horgan seemed comfortable telling British Columbians that neither the Green Party nor the world today are the same as they were when he signed the document in 2017.

If there is an election in the cards for us this fall, expect the Premier to justify his early election call with the idea that British Columbians want government focused on 2020 and beyond, not looking back to a past agreement signed under a different set of circumstances. Expect to hear how the BC NDP government has accomplished most of what was set out in CASA and – more importantly – what they will do to continue to keep British Columbians safe while rebuilding the economy.

Speaking of the fall, children (and parents) will be pleased to know that Dr. Henry believes Halloween can take place this year and will be releasing guidance in the weeks to come about how young people can safely trick-or-treat.