VICTORIA -- The B.C. government has released its plan for the upcoming flu and cold season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health officials say that a large focus will be placed on reducing the amount of regular flu transmission this year compared to previous years.

COVID-19 testing capabilities and contact tracing will be expanded so that British Columbians can have faster results to see if they have COVID-19 or the regular flu.

More than 500 contact tracing staff and approximately 20,000 more COVID-19 tests per day will be available by the time winter begins.

Meanwhile, the province is preparing to roll out an “influenza immunization” plan which will make tens of thousands of additional flu vaccines available.

“We want everybody who is able to have an influenza vaccine to take it this year to protect themselves and their families,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in a live briefing Wednesday.

Approximately 2-million influenza vaccines will be available this year, the highest amount ever collected by the province.

Health officials stress that current COVID-19 safety measures, like physical distancing, regular hand washing and wearing masks when appropriate, will help reduce the spread of the seasonal flu. A concentrated effort to keep these practices going in the community will be undertaken so there will be less demand at hospitals for seasonal influenza.

“We need to increase the work that we’re doing and we need to be prepared for what may come next in this next phase,” said Henry.

Hospitals and COVID-19 surge capacity

Within the health-care system, hospitals are also preparing for the upcoming flu season. Additional daily measures will be taken to ensure that any illness transmission is limited, including an emphasis on same-site staffing.

This winter, a select number of hospitals are being used as COVID-19 surge capacity sites.

Unlike in March, when all hospitals across the province kept a number of hospital beds and ventilators reserved for possible COVID-19 surges, this winter the health-care system will take a staged regional approach.

Nineteen hospitals in the province are dedicated COVID-19 sites and will be activated as needed per region.

This will allow most hospitals to continue to provide regular health-care access while ensuring that there is enough capacity for a possible spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Three of the 19 COVID-19 sites are located in the Island Health region at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, the Royal Jubilee Hospital and at Victoria General Hospital.

In total, the 19 COVID-19 sites are home to 75 per cent of all intensive care beds in the province and 87 per cent of all high acuity units.

Health officials say they are confident that enough beds will be available for all patients this winter, as a significant amount of hospital beds have been added to the health-care system since March.

In March, a total of 5,610 hospital beds were available across the province. As of August, 8,041 hospital beds were available. Many were added as a result of increased health-care funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The B.C. government is also earmarking $42.32 million to increase staffing and support costs for virtual and at-home health-care. The funding is going towards a new program called “Hospital at Home” which will first launch in Victoria General Hospital before expanding to other jurisdictions.

Hospital at Home will allow qualifying patients to receive 24-hour care at home or virtually under the supervision of their hospital, rather than staying in a room at the hospital.

Health officials add that while hospitals may be taking a regional approach to the pandemic, public health policies, like physical distancing and staying home if sick, will remain the same across the province.

Long term health-care plans

Moving forward, health officials say they will focus on protecting vulnerable seniors, especially those who are residents of long-term care or assisted living facilities. The province is already in the process of hiring more than 2,000 staff members at these care facilities and is planning on making flu vaccines available to all residents.

In the longer term, the B.C. government is rolling out a “major recruitment and training” strategy to add up to 5,000 more staff members to the industry, including health-care aides, cleaning and food service staff.

Currently, the province is preparing for four possible COVID-19 scenarios this winter, ranging from a low number of COVID-19 cases, to a moderate amount, to a high amount to an “exceptional” amount

The “low” end of the spectrum mirrors the amount of cases and hospital demand that was seen in B.C. in June, while an “exceptional” amount would feature twice as many cases that B.C. has seen during its peak amounts.

Regardless of which scenario is taking place during this flu season, health officials say they are confident there are enough hospital beds and ventilators for both COVID-19 patients and other patients.

In total, an additional $1.6-billion has been added to B.C.’s health-care system funding this year.