Island Health board chair Leah Hollins. (Lexi Bainas/News Staff)

Island Health board chair Leah Hollins. (Lexi Bainas/News Staff)

ISLAND HEALTH COLUMN: New year focus on vaccinations, opioid crisis, racism in healthcare

Island Health says while there is much work ahead, there is hope

By Leah Hollins, Island Health board chair

COVID-19 has changed the way we work, live and connect with each other in ways we never would have imagined just one year ago. Island Health has risen to the challenge by continuing to provide health and care, while responding to a pandemic and an incredibly challenging opioid overdose crisis.

As we look back at the past year – and look ahead to the year to come – we must pause to remember those we lost from these two public health emergencies.

Throughout the Island Health region, we have been fortunate to see fewer COVID-19 positive cases than many other jurisdictions. I am often asked ‘what is different here?’ COVID-19 appeared later at Island Health, giving us the opportunity to implement precautions much earlier. We mobilized quickly, learning from others on what we needed to do to keep our seniors and communities safe, and took action. As new information and experiences arose, we adapted our response.

While this was an important aspect of our response, the number one reason we have seen lower positive cases are the direct actions from the people in our communities, which have kept this virus from spreading and helped protect our health care system and each other.

Washing your hands, keeping at least two metres apart, wearing a mask in public spaces, staying home when you are sick, and getting tested if you have symptoms; these are the fundamentals of defeating the virus.

From the very early days of the pandemic, we have been stronger together even when we have had to stay physically apart. People supported health care workers in creative ways from putting hearts in windows, to making noise at 7 p.m. each day when the pandemic first hit. I’ve heard from care providers all across the region that these actions made a difference and helped lift them up.

Even with the incredible focus on fighting COVID-19, we have continued moving forward on initiatives to improve health and care in our region. Over the past year, with the support of the province, we have opened the James Bay Urgent Primary Care Centre and Health Care on Yates in Greater Victoria, expanded our use of virtual care, initiated Hospital at Home, and expanded our use of technology to enable more patients to receive care in their homes. After a nine-week pause in scheduled surgeries, we reopened operating rooms by the end of May, and we have seen surgical volumes averaging 10 per cent above last year, and are on track to recover by summer of 2021.

READ ALSO: Victoria’s first urgent primary health clinic set to open in James Bay this month

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After beginning to see some light in our response to the opioid crisis in 2019, reducing the number of overdose deaths, the pandemic set us back, enabling a more toxic drug supply and driving up the number of people we have lost. In partnership with the province, municipalities and front line service providers, we are developing new pathways to support vulnerable populations.

READ ALSO: Pandemic aggravates opioid crisis as overdoses rise and services fall out of reach

Longstanding injustices from anti-Indigenous racism also came to the forefront in the B.C. health care system in 2020. An investigation led by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond identified widespread anti-Indigenous racism in B.C.’s health care system – including at Island Health. Racism has no place in health and care – in fact, it goes against everything we believe in – and we will not look the other way when it is exposed. The Truth and Reconciliation Report stressed change must first begin with understanding the truth. We are committed to make lasting changes by hearing the truth and responding with change.

READ ALSO: Wave of racist emails ‘unleashed’ on B.C. researchers investigating racism in health care

The importance of public health under the leadership of our medical health officers have guided our day to day lives in ways we haven’t experienced in our lifetime. Public health is the basis for overall health and wellness, from ensuring our air and water is clean, to promoting the importance of living a healthy lifestyle, to immunizations against disease.

As we head into 2021, our public health officials are now leading a new and bold initiative – immunizing our population against COVID-19. It is the beginning of the end of the pandemic; and while there is much work to do before this virus is defeated, there is hope.

READ ALSO: Vaccines for general public on Vancouver Island not expected anytime soon

Leah Hollins is the board chair of Island Health

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