VANCOUVER -- The surge in hospitalizations in Metro Vancouver is driven by variants and has prompted health officials to move patients between hospitals to make room for COVID-19 cases.

The top doctor in Fraser Health told CTV News Vancouver that as the region’s three designated COVID-19 hospitals are filling up, patients from Royal Columbian Hospital, Surrey Memorial Hospital and Abbotsford General Hospital are being moved to smaller hospitals within the health authority.

“We have developed quite a comprehensive surge plan,” said Fraser Health CEO and president Dr. Victoria Lee. “We monitor our hospital and critical care capacity on an hour-to-hour basis, actually, and look at what we need to do and some of the adjustments we need to make.”

“We’ve looked at it from a regional perspective and looked at every existing capacity, expanded some of the capacity with existing staff and then, most recently, at those three hospitals we have temporarily reduced surgical capacity by one to two (operating rooms) per day,” she said. “That allows us to utilize and leverage some of our staff and nursing care that’s available in those settings.”

Lee said other elective surgeries are continuing at other hospitals. She noted that at various times different hospitals have struggled with COVID-19 patient loads, including Burnaby, Eagle Ridge and most recently Chilliwack General Hospital. Each time, they’ve moved patients to other facilities with capacity in order to maintain care.

Her concerns about the growing number of variants comes as B.C.’s health minister clarifies exactly who is counted in COVID-19 hospitalization numbers and who isn’t.

“If you are hospitalized from COVID-19 you’re released from the hospitalization list when you’re discharged,” said Adrian Dix, noting it’s different for patients in intensive care units. 

“If you’re cleared but you’re in critical care for other reasons, you’re not on that list, I think is as straightforward as that is,” he said. “It hasn’t changed through the pandemic.”

When challenged on that definition and metric, which is different from how Ontario now reports COVID-19 hospitalizations, Dix fired back.

“B.C. has provided consistent and accurate information at every single briefing since March,” he said. “Right now we have more people in critical care since any point in the pandemic.”

At the same press conference, Dix did not deny that frontline health-care workers were being kept from speaking publicly about their work with a gag order.

Lee’s focus is keeping the system operating despite increasing strain.

“We are seeing increased numbers of cases, we’re also seeing increased circulation of variants of concern that’s impacting our hospitalizations and critical care capacity,” said Lee, who is putting forward an urgent plea for the public to follow public health guidelines to reduce infection rates.

“We need to ensure that as our (health-care) teams have been working incredibly hard to protect our system and provide the best care we can, all of us are doing everything we can to protect ourselves and our communities and health system,” Lee said.