VANCOUVER -- Further support is on the way for the province's remote, Indigenous and rural communities, B.C. officials announced at a news conference on the pandemic Monday.

In an effort to aid in the communities' response to COVID-19, the premier promised what he described as a "collaborative framework for health care."

John Horgan said planning for primary care was already going on behind the scenes, but the emergence of the pandemic highlighted its importance.

The framework includes improved medical transportation options: planes, helicopters and 55 new ambulances.

"Everyone in B.C. deserves to have health-care services delivered close to where they live," Horgan said.

"If we can't build the facilities in rural and remote communities, we should make sure we have the ability to take citizens to those facilities."

For those who need to travel, the province is providing accommodations allowing them to self-isolate in areas close to hospitals in urban centres.

And the premier pledged faster and "culturally appropriate" access to COVID-19 testing measures.

Methods of contacting those who may have been exposed to a patient with the virus would be done in a way that "respects privacy in small communities," according to a news release on the announcement.

There will also be increased mental-health supports in rural, remote and Indigenous communities.

"Also, an acceleration of enhanced virtual health care. We are making great strides in British Columbia, led largely by the private sector in partnership with our health-care deliverers, to make virtual health care a thing of our present, not just a thing of our future," Horgan said at the news conference.

'Unique needs'

Indigenous Relations Minister Scott Fraser said the framework addresses the "unique needs" of B.C.'s Indigenous communities, especially those in more remote areas.

"Ever since settlers began arriving here about 150 years ago, Indigenous people, time and again, have been hit much harder by diseases and pandemics, and that has left lasting effects and fears," Fraser said.

He said the concerns he's heard from First Nations and Metis communities in recent weeks include the protection of elders and knowledge keepers.

They face challenges including access to health care, pre-existing conditions and already crowded housing, he said.

He said each community in rural B.C. has its own challenges, and the framework announced Monday allows the province to address them individually.

"This is all hands on deck," Fraser said.

"We are flattening the curve in British Columbia, and though we have not seen significant outbreaks in rural and remote communities yet, we must be ready, we must be vigilant, and that's what this framework is all about."

'Culturally appropriate'

Horgan described the tailored response for Indigenous communities as "culturally appropriate," a term elaborated on by the deputy provincial health officer of Indigenous health.

"Our people have been healthy, balanced and well for thousands of years," Dr. Danièle Behn Smith said.

"Since contact, we've shown our strength and resilience time and again against deliberate attacks on our ways of knowing and being, our culture, our language – the things that make us distinctly Indigenous. And we have faced ongoing systemic and structural racism and discrimination."

Behn Smith said Indigenous people have come into the pandemic on "unequal footing," but that she believes coming together in response to novel coronavirus has potential to promote equity.

She echoed the need to protect elders, and said three other considerations must be part of the provincial response:

  • using approaches that honour unique Indigenous experiences;
  • hearing and responding to the needs of Indigenous women and girls who face higher rates of violence, which she says have "intensified" as a result of COVID-prompted isolation;
  • and using "robust" tracking that includes Indigenous data.

Behn Smith said that data should be used to monitor whether needs are being met in a "culturally safe" way.

"By this, I mean it's not just about the services we deliver, it's about how we deliver them."

She said cultural identity must be respected.

In a statement, the chairperson of the First Nations Health Council said culturally-appropriate care is critical for more vulnerable residents.

"Our made-in-B.C. First Nations health governance structure is grounded in the wisdom of our leaders who are determined to address the health inequities within First Nations communities," Charlene Belleau said.