It began as two nurses and a single phone line, helping travellers returning home with results of COVID-19 testing during a newly declared global pandemic. Two years later, it was a robust suite of provincial health services, staffed by 824 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, contact tracers, data entry clerks, operations staff, and clinical and non-clinical leaders – the COVID-19 Rapid Response Team (C19RRT).

Despite navigating the uncertainties and unpredictability of the pandemic, the C19RRT supported an entire province by providing key critical COVID-19 services, ensuring the availability and accessibility of care across BC when it was needed most.

While the true impact of the C19RRT can’t be fully measured, what is known is how positively it was received by the public and care providers who benefited from the rapid support and resources it provided.

“We called the testing results phone number today to find out about my son’s test,” said one person who sent a complimentary note to their Patient Care Quality Office. “The lady had such a pleasant and happy demeanour! It is nice to hear that, despite the stress and anxiety caused by COVID-19, the people who we contact are so calming … wonderful, positive energy!! Kudos to all of you!”

Said a health care worker: “Because of all of your hard work, long hours, and consistent efforts, we were able to ensure that none of the public ‘fell through the cracks’ with their vaccinations. Thank you for taking the time to not only contact, but to connect with everyone. Your efforts made this operation a great success.”

The C19RRT launched in March 2020 following a request for the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) to set up a hotline for BC citizens to receive COVID-19 results. Its mandate rapidly expanded to ensure surge capacity, coordination, and continuity across all regional health authorities, First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and communities across the province within an ever-evolving pandemic response.

The challenges were great because of the varied ways services are provided by health authorities, multiple electronic medical records systems, guidelines that changed often to match the changes of the pandemic, and unexpected environmental impacts due to wildfires and flooding.

Meeting these challenges meant taking an approach that was creative, innovative and flexible, and to use the guiding principles of teamwork, collaboration, people-centredness, and continuous improvement. They necessarily thought outside the box, creating new processes and developing key partnerships to support the best care possible despite the demands and enormous strain the pandemic added to the public health care system.

Because of these innovative practices, the C19RRT became an example provincially and nationally for providing critical pandemic response services that otherwise would not have been possible without its existence.

Before being officially demobilized in April 2022, this included the Provincial COVID-19 Results Hotline, COVID-19 testing, COVID-19 case and contact management, interjurisdictional and provincial outbreak management response, the Temporary Foreign Workers Hotel Quarantine program (TFW), centralized Adverse Event Following Immunization (AEFI) reporting (AEFI), immunization clinics, and support for other projects and that addressed public health restart and recovery.

For health authorities and FNHA, the additional surge resources provided by the C19RRT ensured that services like fully staffed immunization clinics and case and contact management tasks could be completed. For patients, families, and communities, the additional resources provided by the C19RRT ensured timely access to results so people could return to work and school, as well as culturally safe care and the availability of immunization services close to home.

For instance, when nurse immunizers were urgently required in Prince Rupert to support the first whole-community immunization effort, the C19RRT chartered a plane and had staff on the ground in

less than 48 hours. The team built on this experience to develop low-barrier immunization clinics for temporary foreign workers and lead outbreak investigations on local mink farms.

The most important success of the C19RRT may still be to come. Recognizing what it was able to accomplish, and to ensure the work is sustained and the lessons learned are not lost, a new Public Health Response (PHR) service line has been established at the BCCDC, which aims to provide leadership and oversight of emergent and key priority public health issues that require coordination across BCCDC services and regional health authorities.