VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The COVID-19 pandemic response emptied a lot of public spaces over the past few months, including — apparently — hospital emergency rooms.
“We have seen historically low volumes of emergency department visits, especially for our visits that are not emergency or critical,” says Dr. Victoria Lee, President and CEO of the Fraser Health, which oversees 12 hospitals in the region.
Lee says there was a 17 per cent decline in ER visits from January through May of this year compared to 2019. Vancouver Coastal Health also reports a 17 per cent drop in ER visits at its 11 hospitals from January through April compared to the year before. All told, that represents tens of thousands fewer patients walking into ERs across the region through the first months of 2020.
Numbers were provided in an interview with head of Fraser Health and in a statistical release from Vancouver Coastal Health. They covered slightly different time periods and ER scenarios but both indicated a 17-percent drop in ER visits through early 2020.
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The biggest declines were in less urgent cases as people stayed away from hospitals for fear of spreading COVID-19.
“In the months since the pandemic was declared we saw, initially, increased volume for a lot of testing. And then, after that, quite significant and historically low volumes afterwards during the pandemic response and now they are picking back up again,” Lee tells NEWS 1130.
There was also a slight dip in the volume of urgent cases at local ERs.
“That’s probably because of the fact that we don’t have as many motor vehicle collisions during this time, not as many people being injured outdoors, so I think there are good indications of why,” she explains.
Some mental health and substance abuse-related cases were also diverted from the emergency room to virtual care and community-based care.
“We certainly made more virtual services accessible and available. We’ve heard from some of our patients that it was a great experience for them. Rather than going into the ER, they were able to access some of the mental health services in the community ion a very timely way,” she says.
“It worked for them and they were able to follow up with their clinicians in that manner instead of going into the emergency room.”
Lee says in the Fraser Health Region alone, there were an average 350 fewer ER visits per day over the first five months of 2020 compared to 2019, and it dropped even lower through the height of the pandemic response.
“On a day-to-day basis, sometimes it was a thousand fewer people across our 12 emergency departments, so quite a significant figure.”
As BC heads into the next stages of it’s “restart” plan, slowly easing pandemic restrictions, Lee says Fraser Health continues to look at additional ways to support patients in the community ad through virtual care.
“It’s important to ensure that our emergency departments are safe and immediately available for those who have critical or life-threatening conditions. Most non-emergency illnesses can be addressed by a person’s family physician or in a community setting with supports that are available.”
-With files from Mike Hall