Now is not the time to end Covid-related services in BC

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      By Dr. Karina Zeidler, Hannah Siden, and E.S. Lee

      After 2023, funding for Covid-related services is set to end in BC.

      For nearly four years now, British Columbians have been grappling with Covid-19. We’re currently aided by health management initiatives like vaccination, testing, and protective equipment for healthcare workers. Since 2021, these measures have been funded by BC’s Pandemic Recovery Contingencies, a three-year plan that also sustains economic recovery programs and supports for vulnerable community members.

      This plan expires at the end of 2023. After that, our government anticipates that “most initiatives will wind down or be integrated into existing government programs.” 

      The problem is, Covid-19 isn’t winding down—and pre-existing programs are being strained. 

      One in 39 Canadians are currently infected with SARS-CoV2. Despite scant public messaging, hospitalizations are 14 times higher and deaths are 15 times higher than the lowest point in the pandemic to date. Statistics Canada found that life expectancy has fallen for three years in a row, while Covid-19 has risen to become the third leading cause of death.

      New, treatment-resistant variants are evolving quickly due to rapid spread. Hospital outbreaks endanger patients and healthcare workers, while our healthcare system grapples with staffing shortages and chronic ER closures. Doctors are told to work while sick, while warnings about RSV, influenza, strep A, tuberculosis, and measles highlight the volatile mix of airborne and infectious diseases at large. 

      At DoNoHarm BC and Protect Our Province BC, we’ve been leading grassroots action addressing this health crisis—and we welcomed an important win this October, when BC restored mask protections to hospitals and long-term care. Yet we know healthcare masking is just one piece of a bigger picture: if public health programs are dismantled, our collective progress could be undone.

      The pandemic’s impact spills beyond hospitals and into our communities. Record-high work absences from illness are straining school budgets and cancelling ferry sailings. Loss of Covid relief funding puts half of affected charities at moderate-to-high risk of closure, jeopardizing crucial services.

      Behind all this looms Long Covid: a serious, post-infectious condition affecting at least 10 to 20 per cent of Covid survivors, including 16 per cent of children. With risks that persist despite vaccination and multiply with reinfection, Canada’s Office of the Chief Science Advisor has described Long Covid as a potential “mass-disabling event.” Meanwhile, researchers warn that Covid-19 may also trigger or accelerate other diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, strokes, autoimmune diseases, and dementia.

      Faced with these ongoing challenges, we can’t think of a worse time to “wind down” Covid-19 health management in BC.

      Of course, policy-makers must exercise fiscal prudence. In public health, however, upstream measures prevent far greater downstream costs. In 2020, Goldman Sachs estimated a national mask order could have saved the US economy one trillion dollars. Research demonstrates clean indoor air prevents illness at a benefit-cost ratio of up to 100 to one.

      Without clarity on how BC plans to manage Covid-19 or other airborne health hazards in 2024, we have some recommendations:

      • Renew a three-year plan supporting sustainable health management initiatives and ongoing economic recovery, as well as resilience against future pandemics.
      • Establish a Clean Indoor Air Act and support a building retrofit strategy (following the lead of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, who are already taking action on clean air).
      • Provide a personal protective equipment tax credit​ of $5 million per year, offsetting costs for low-income seniors and persons with disabilities.
      • Improve Long Covid care in line with urgent calls from BC doctors, patients, and a federal task force.
      • Support improved digital health solutions, including better usability and interoperability, as recommended by many including Doctors of BC.

      If you care about sustainable community health, please add your voice to ours.

      Dr. Karina Zeidler is a family physician and co-founder of Protect Our Province BC. Hannah Siden is a disability advocate. E.S. Lee is a community organizer with DoNoHarm BC.