‘Code orange’ briefly activated at BC Children’s Hospital amid patient surge

A hospital emergency code typically reserved for natural disasters and mass casualty events was briefly activated at BC Children’s Hospital Saturday morning.

A spokesperson for the Provincial Health Services Authority confirmed to CTV News that a “code orange” was called at the hospital at 6:35 a.m. It was cancelled a little less than 30 minutes later, at 7:03 a.m.

The spokesperson provided no other details on the situation, nor any explanation of why the code was activated, but children’s hospitals in B.C. and across Canada have been struggling with high patient volumes during the current respiratory illness season.

A document declaring the code orange that was shared with CTV News gives the reason for the declaration as an “increase in patient census/acuity in (the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) without appropriate resources to manage.”

Last month, BC Children’s Hospital opened an overflow unit for its emergency room to help manage the large number of patients. 

A memo announcing the overflow ER described the department as “mostly seeing viral illnesses, including Enterovirus/Rhinovirus, and now increasing presentations of influenza and RSV, as well as steady COVID-19.”

The surge has also led to the cancellation of pediatric surgeries as the facility’s limited ICU beds are occupied by children with serious respiratory illness. 

The province has just 21 pediatric intensive care beds, which are located at BCCH, Victoria General and University of Northern BC Hospitals. 

Emergency room wait times at BC Children’s Hospital have been as high as 12 hours in recent weeks. On Saturday afternoon, waits were considerably shorter, at about two hours and 30 minutes as of 3:30 p.m.

Earlier in the day, however, they had been as long as eight hours.

And BCCH isn’t even the busiest pediatric emergency department in B.C. That distinction belongs to Surrey Memorial Hospital, where doctors said last month that they were facing quadruple the number of patients the ER was designed for, and 100 more per day than they saw last year. 

“The pediatric ER has been overrun for a while now and we have expanded into the adult side, where right now we’re using two treatment beds,” said Dr. Randeep Gill, an emergency physician at SMH.

“We’re seeing approximately 250 kids per day during the surge, but it was built for 72 patient visits per day.”

A similar surge in demand for pediatric hospital beds in Alberta recently led to the cancellation of respite services at Rotary Flames House, that province’s pediatric hospice. Staff from the facility have been redeployed to assist Alberta Children’s Hospital with its high patient volumes. 

CTV News contacted Vancouver’s Canuck Place Children’s Hospice to inquire about whether similar measures were being considered in B.C., but was told that the staffing model is different in this province because Canuck Place is a private hospice.

The facility said no one from BC Children’s Hospital or the PHSA has asked it for either additional beds or staff.  

With files from CTV News Vancouver’s Penny Daflos

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