MSP extends to temporary residents for COVID-19 related claims

MSP expands to cover virus

Temporary foreign workers, international students and all uninsured patients in British Columbia will now have immediate access to MSP coverage for COVID-19 related claims.

Grassroots organization Sanctuary Health member Omar Chu says they are thrilled with the B.C. Government’s recent decision, as they've been lobbying for the Ministry of Health to make the changes for a long time. 

Many private insurers are not offering COVID-related care for temporary foreign workers, and therefore the Ministry felt it was essential to make MSP accessible for everyone to get that care, says Chu. 

"We were extremely worried for many people who were uninsured, who didn’t know what to do if they were to need healthcare during this time... there was an initial sense of confusion about what this means and will people have care? Certainly, there was some relief that a stream that has been built for uninsured people, but we’re still committed to fighting to make sure that actually works for people and that they actually have the care that they need."

The new COVID-19 stream means that if someone who is uninsured is directed by 811 or another medical professional to get COVID-related care, the province will cover those medical expenses.

There will be no coverage for any care not directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which Sanctuary Health wants to see changed. 

"We're calling for full coverage for people who are currently uninsured because it shouldn’t be on medical professionals to be considering what’s COVID-related care or not. They don’t have time to do that - they just need to make the best decision."

Chu says this must be taken into consideration, as well as questions like whether patients are covered for conditions that could decrease their immunity to COVID or place an extra burden on the hospital system during this time.

"For example, someone comes in with asthma - is treating the asthma that considered COVID-related care? Because if they were to receive COVID later, it would impact their chances. It's not clear." 

The three-month wait period for access to MSP in British Columbia has also been waived, ensuring that workers who have just arrived in Canada or been here less than three months can get immediate access to care.

"It looks like for as long as the province considers this a crisis they will waive the three-month wait period and provide people care upon arrival. We hope that continues, and we will push for that to continue beyond the current crisis because we don’t think it’s a good policy."

UBC infectious disease specialist Dr. Srinivas Murthy, who is leading a national research effort to improve clinical management of COVID-19, says this is a step in the right direction. 

“There is no ‘us’ against ’them’ in a pandemic. As B.C. and the world try to control the spread and mitigate the effects of COVID-19, it is vital for us to understand that our health is dependent on each other. Barriers to healthcare, especially for vulnerable populations, only increase risk.

"Covering COVID-19 related care is a good step forward but it should not stop there. It is important for preventative and primary care to be accessible to everyone too," Murthy said. 


Ambulance calls and emergency room visits are down across B.C.

Medical calls down in B.C.

As healthcare workers across the province continue to prepare for an influx of COVID-19 patients, British Columbians appear less interested in going to the hospital.

During Wednesday's daily conference, Health Minister Adrian Dix said the the number of ambulance calls and emergency room visits are down across the province.

“You see that people are using healthcare for other reasons less at the moment, this is for a number of reasons,” Dix said, without elaborating on what those reasons may be.

While the average number of ambulance calls in B.C. before the COVID-19 pandemic was 1,540, Tuesday saw just 1,311.

Even more significantly, while Monday, March 9 saw 6,559 emergency room visits across the province, just three weeks later on Monday, only 3,274 people visited the emergency room.

After the province suspended all elective surgeries, to make space for expected COVID-19 patients, province-wide, hospital beds are at 61 per cent capacity. This means there are 4,192 empty hospital beds in B.C.

“These are very difficult weeks,” Dix said. “Stay with this, there are some signs that the actions we're taking are making a difference ... but we can't stop now.”

Vancouver docks face protective gear shortage

Port workers short of gear

A shortage of breathing masks, gloves and disposable coveralls for dockworkers has become a concern for the B.C. Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA) as most are reserved for healthcare workers.

“The requirement for N95 masks is the biggest concern, as use and demand has skyrocketed from others,” the association is quoted as saying in March 30 Western Marine Community Coalition records of discussion.

Protective equipment is also running low on Pacific Pilotage Authority vessels. The authority is working on protocols to ensure safety of ships’ pilots and other employees to continue ship movements.

And, terminals have reported they are encouraging proper hygiene and social distancing and are working on contingency plans in case of positive COVID-19 identifications. Terminal operators also report an inability to source protective gear for employees.

“Everybody’s running short on safety equipment,” International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada president Rob Ashton said.

He said safety issues at terminals are being considered by joint union-employer safety committees on a case-by-case basis.

“If something comes up, it is being addressed,” Ashton said.

BCMEA operations vice-president John Beckett said strict operational protocols are in place for worker safety – although the scramble for safety equipment continues.

He said he has toured terminals with Ashton to assess situations on the ground.

“Anxiety is high on the waterfront,” Beckett said.

He said waterfront protocols are in place to handle issue such as deep cleaning, safety equipment, booking time off and returns to work.

However, the association has now seen two refusals to work. Those have been referred to Transport Canada. Both dealt with container lashing, which requires two people to work closely together, making the social distancing of two metres impossible.

Beckett said there have been “numerous refusals to work,” but, in the two cases, one was handled with a resolution through Transport Canada while the second was resolved through a local safety committee.

“There’s systems there to deal with these sorts of issues,” he said. “The systems work.”

Further, he said, there are also systems in place to track the health of seafarers.

And, he stressed, the ports are committed to remaining open to assure the flow of goods including medical and emergency supplies

The coalition said B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure is expected to announce details on its Provincial Supply Chain Coordination Unit, and that further information will soon be coming from Emergency Management BC.

The supply chain unit would be in charge of making sure medical goods and some other select products will get to health professionals and others in need. Retail stores are now required to report inventory of critical supplies to the province to ensure availability to frontline health workers.

Pacific Pilotage Authority has released new details on how pilots can go to and from vessels on various parts of the coast, and on distancing pilots should maintain from crews.

Local logistics aside, COVID-19’s rapid erosion of world travel and trade has yet to significantly disrupt operations at B.C.’s largest container cargo terminals.

However, increased border closures and travel restrictions and global economic stagnation will inevitably slow goods demand and freight flow around the world.


Man licks door after angry outburst at a Prince George bank

Irate man licks bank door

Prince George RCMP has identified a man who's the subject of a video that shows him licking door handles and swearing at others in line at a local bank. 

Numerous people on social media uploaded videos of the man storming off outside of what appears to be a TD Canada building and is seen licking the front doors while swearing constantly at others. 

Facebook user Sunny Lally explains he was patiently waiting in line, adding "this individual lost his mind and started spitting, coughing and licking the door handle."

"Why you may ask?" his Facebook post continues.

"Because TD, along with many other businesses, are devoting the first hour of operations to seniors and people in need. Apparently this is 'unacceptable' and 'bulls**t', so buddy decided to make a fuss about it and endanger the lives around him with his actions," he says.

"The manager and the employees handled this situation perfectly. The police have been notified with his license plate number and have been sent a copy of this video."

Prince George RCMP has confirmed the incident to PrinceGeorgeMatters and the man in the video has been identified.

An investigation is ongoing.

Chevron offers discount for frontline healthcare workers

Cheap gas for health workers

Frontline workers dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in British Columbia and Alberta will be able to claim a discount at Chevron gas stations for the next two weeks.

From Mar. 27 to Apr. 17, all hospital workers, first responders and retail workers at Parkland, Chevron's parent company, will receive $10 off their fill-up with a minimum 20 litre purchase.

To claim the discount, workers must present a professional identification card or credentials. 

Parkland Canada president Donna Sanker says the company wants to do all it can to show support for those working harder than ever to keep communities healthy.

“During these extraordinary times we want to do our part to support these dedicated individuals for all that they have done and are doing to keep everyone, safe, healthy and moving. It's our way of saying thanks to those in critical and essential service roles in the communities in which we live and operate."

Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on B.C.'s COVID-19 situation

53 new cases, 1 death

Another 53 cases of COVID-19 cases have been identified in British Columbia, bringing the total in the province to 1,066. Of these cases, 606 COVID-19 patients have full recovered.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced another person has died from the virus, bringing the total number of deaths to 25. On Tuesday, Dr. Henry said all but one death has been of people in their seventies or older.

There are now 114 confirmed cases of the virus in the Interior Health region, up from 107 on Tuesday. 

Across the province, 142 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized, 67 of whom are in critical care. 

COVID-19 has also been found in two more long-term seniors' care homes in the province, bringing the number of total care homes impacted to 21.

BC Hydro offers credits, forgiveness to residents and businesses

BC Hydro offers credits

The Province of B.C. is rolling out BC Hydro bill relief to residents, small businesses and large industrial operations impacted by efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. 

Residential customers who have lost their jobs or are struggling with reduced employment will be eligible for a three-month credit from BC Hydro, worth on average $477 per customer. Small businesses that have closed their doors will not have to pay their hydro bills starting today through to the end of June. 

Large industrial customers will have the option to defer 50% of their bills over the next three months.

"People are thinking about the bills they will receiving over the coming months," Premier John Horgan said on Wednesday. "That deferment will allow those businesses to continue operating."

The province also announced that the BC Utilities Commission has approved a 1% BC Hydro rate reduction that will apply to all hydro customers.

B.C. Minister of Energy Bruce Ralston said that the credit, bill forgiveness and payment deferral program will cost approximately $19 million.

"This will provide immediate relief to retail stores, restaurants, tourism, the personal services sector and other small businesses that are struggling," said Ralston. 

"We want to let people know that more relief is coming." 

Ralston said that B.C. residents will have the ability to apply for relief and the three-month BC Hydro credit by the end of next week. Those eligible include individuals who have been laid off, whose hours have been reduced, who are self-employed and dealing with a reduction in employment, those in quarantine and parents who are unable to work because they are caring for their children.

The value of the three-month residential credit will be three times the customer's average monthly power bill over the past 12 months.

Small businesses will be able to apply for bill forgiveness starting the week of April 14.

Before Wednesday's announcement, BC Hydro residential and commercial customers could defer their bill payments or request a flexible payment plan with no penalty under the Crown corporation's COVID-19 customer assistance program. 

BC Hydro was also providing grants of up to $600 to residential customers facing financial hardship and struggling to pay their bills

Tech community, health authorities launch COVID-19 Supply Hub

'Supply hub' launches

What happened: Province launches new platform to manage offers for medical supplies

Why it matters: The COVID-19 Supply Hub was built in just seven days as part of a private-public initiative to tackle the pandemic 

Organizations looking to boost B.C.’s access to medical supplies amidst the pandemic have a new tool to tap.

The province on Wednesday (April 1) unveiled the COVID-19 Supply Hub, a platform that will allow organizations to manage and source much-needed supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health-care workers.

The COVID-19 Supply Hub was built in seven days at a cost of $100,000, with Burnaby-based tech company Traction on Demand Inc. taking the lead on its development.

Suppliers, who must be pre-qualified, can access the platform at gov.bc.ca/supplyhub.

From there, government will let suppliers know what items are needed and can then begin prioritizing thousands of offers and donations coming from organizations.

The province is currently prioritizing items such as gowns, hand sanitizer, face masks and surgical masks, among others, but it will also accept offers from industry for other supplies such as cleaning materials.

The project came together through the Business Council of B.C. and the Vancouver-based Digital Technology Supercluster, the latter of which has $153 million earmarked from Ottawa to stoke private industry and post-secondary collaborations on digital products that can be commercialized.

Sue Paish, CEO of the Digital Technology Supercluster, said her organization was built specifically to identify key players that could tackle endeavours such as this.

“A big problem right off the bat … in a pandemic is getting supplies to the right people at the frontlines,” she told Business in Vancouver.

“Once we identified the problem along with the health system and the government of B.C., it was not hard to identify some potential solution-providers and bring them around the table.”

The Digital Technology Supercluster is now fielding 130 proposals from its members.

The supercluster itself contributed $40,000 to the quick development of the COVID-19 Supply Hub, while Traction on Demand covered $50,000 and San Francisco-based Salesforce.com Inc. (NYSE: CRM) covered $10,000.

Traction on Demand develops software that builds tailored marketing for brands using data gathered by the Salesforce.

Now that the COVID-19 Supply Hub is built, the government’s Provincial Supply Coordination Unit will manage the platform.

“We have been overwhelmed in the most positive way with responses from industry to solve the problems created by the COVID-19 environment,” Paish said.

“I am both impressed but not surprised that the Canadian business community and industry writ large has come forward to identify ways we can help Canada get through this.”

Jump in OD deaths in Vancouver highlight two health emergencies

The other health emergency

The City of Vancouver says a recent spike of overdose deaths is a reminder that there are two ongoing public health emergencies.

The city says in a statement that police responded to eight suspected overdose deaths last week, the highest number since last August and in contrast to a decline in overdose deaths over the past year.

The deaths come as Vancouver Coastal Health issued new guidelines on offering safer alternatives to street drugs in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The city says it's hoped that by allowing the prescription of safe drugs it will not only reduce the risk over overdose but allow people to keep physical distance.

It says drug supply remains toxic with fentanyl and other contaminants present in many local illicit drugs and overdose prevention sites in the city remain open for people to access.

There have been more than 4,700 overdose deaths in B.C. since the crisis was first declared nearly four years ago.

3 Delta ambulances have their catalytic converters stolen

Ambulances hit by thieves

Delta Police say three ambulances that were in for repair had their catalytic converters stolen, Tuesday night. 

"During this pandemic, it is important that we have all our ambulances on the road," police said in a social media post.

"We want to support our health-care partners, and that means helping to keep their equipment safe, too."

Police used the hashtag #NotAprilFools in the post on Facebook.

Anyone with information on the incident is asked to call 604-946-4411 and quote file number 20-7051.

New Westminster virus testing centre has its hands full

Inside COVID test centre

Outside a retrofitted walk-in clinic, parked vehicles surround the block — nurses, firefighters and others thought to be exposed to COVID-19 or linked with an outbreak wait for masked aids to escort them into an exam room. 

On a bench in the hallway, a single masked patient waits to be admitted. Through two doors, Dr. Ali Okhowat of Coquitlam, the clinic’s physician lead, slides open a drawer inside a tiny exam room. Inside, sealed nasal-pharyngeal swab kits are scattered in two piles: blue for adults, red for children. 

“The loads here are just… We can't keep up,” Dr. Okhowat said from behind several layers of personal protective equipment. “Now we're finding a lot of [gastrointestinal] symptoms are coming back, like diarrhea, for example, coming back as COVID-positive.”

The seven-day-a-week testing centre, across the street from Royal Columbian Hospital, has become an important facility for those exhibiting symptoms of the novel coronavirus, and a focal point of a new virtual triage system that has been rolled out across Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and New Westminster.

The clinic opened March 16 and, within the first week, the family physician said there was a massive surge of people looking to get tested. By March 29, nearly 500 patients had walked through the clinic doors, although the Fraser Northwest Division of Family Practice Society, which leads the effort, is forbidden to disclose how many have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Following provincial mandates, the clinic targets its testing to front line medical workers and first responders. Outside of those deemed “essential,” doctors there can also test high-risk individuals such as pregnant women, care home residents or those linked to an active transmission chain or outbreak cluster.

“[Front line workers] are terrified to be a vector,” said Dr. Okhowat. “[We’re] just trying to ensure first responders and front line health care workers aren’t transmitting the virus among themselves.”

But while the clinic is restricted in who it tests for COVID-19, it has also opened up its doors to the public in other, more experimental ways.

By early March, clinics and family physicians across the Tri-Cities were struggling to manage a flood of patients exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms, even as the supply of personal protective equipment — masks, surgical gowns, gloves and plastic face shields — ran dry. To protect their staff, many family physicians and walk-in clinics made the agonizing decision to close their doors.

“There were a lot of doctors and nurses testing people without equipment, going on leave because of exposure,” said Kristan Ash, the executive director of FNWD. “They put themselves at risk. And that’s horrible.”

At the same time, people are desperate, Ash added.

“People are stealing from hospitals. We’ve had people walking into doctors officers yelling and screaming for masks. A lady stole hand sanitizer from a clinic the other day, pumping it into a plastic bag,” she said. “I stood there and I looked at her and said to myself, ‘Do I stop her? But if you’re that bold and that desperate…”

Vancouver photographer captures faces of social distancing

Windows on isolation

For over a decade, Ryan Walter Wagner has worked as a photographer in Vancouver. From headshots to portraits to events to content, he's done it all. But, the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to think about his craft in a new way.

While Wagner often shoots clients in his studio, Good Side, social distancing doesn't allow for in-person close-ups. Instead, he's travelling to people's homes, and shooting them through their windows, on their porches, or on their balconies. Sometimes, their windows are open, other times they leave them closed. In some photos, people smile, while in others they look somewhat somber. 

Titled "Through the Window," Wagner's portrait project aims to show "how we’re all adapting from the perspective of physical distance, and looking out to a weird world trying to find our “new normal."

Wagner says people seem quite comfortable with the experience. In fact, he notes that they are actually opening up.

"I've noticed that people want to document this period in photos," he says. "People are opening up a lot more – they have a lot to express."

"One woman that I shot had been practically alone for 14 days. She said she'd only seen one other person - I was the second."

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