COVID-19 in B.C.: British Columbians have made an impact in stemming the pandemic, data shows

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      British Columbia is on the right track, thanks to collective efforts across the province to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

      That’s the assessment from B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix.

      At a news conference today (April 17), Dr. Henry and Dix presented statistical information that revealed how the actions taken by British Columbians have been making a difference in the coronavirus pandemic.

      Bending the curve

      In the wake of B.C. public health measures—such as closing schools and businesses—were implemented from March 14 to 21, case numbers peaked on March 24 and have been in gradual decline ever since. Dr. Henry explained that these measures were introduced “relatively early on in our increase in numbers of cases” and rated about 80 percent on an international stringency scale.

      “So that, I think, is one of the things that kept us in good stead that allowed us, because people adhered to these actions…to bend our curve,” she said.

      She pointed out that although Italy introduced highly stringent measures, they did so after exponential growth of cases was already underway.

      “Our early testing strategy…helped us to better understand where transmissions were happening so we did have a good sense of where we were at the time when we started to see community transmission and an increase in the cases that we were seeing in B.C., and we also learned from what others were doing around the world,” she said.

      On March 16, the testing criteria shifted from all cases to healthcare workers, longterm care facilities, outbreak clusters, and severe cases. Then on April 9, testing expanded to ensure that cases and clusters weren’t being missed. Despite this expansion of testing, there weren’t any significant increases in new cases.

      In addition, Dix pointed out that the number of hospitalized and critical care cases have also been plateauing and are on a downward trend, and that what appears to be a downward trend of intensive care unit cases has provided “cautious optimism”. 

      However, the number of deaths, particularly among seniors, continue to remain steady.

      Based upon a total number of 1,517 confirmed cases as of April 14, the median age was 54 years old, with 811 females and 689 males (Dr. Henry stated that the larger number of females reflects that most healthcare workers are female).

      Also, 36 percent (707 cases) of these cases are among people who have at least one chronic condition.

      Based upon 72 deaths since April 14, the average age for fatalities is 86 years old. Dr. Henry said that although the majority of the confirmed cases have been among people aged 30 to 60 (which she said also reflects the large number of tests of healthcare workers who tend to be in this age group), the majority of deaths have been among people 70 years or older, with the largest number in the 80 to 89 years old age range (50 cases).

      “The challenging thing that we need to recognize is that we are at the point in our outbreak where there are still people in hospital, there are people still very ill with this disease, and it takes some time, up to six weeks…before somebody will either recover or may succumb to this disease,” she said. “So it is unfortunately the truth that we are going to see more people die from this disease in the coming weeks here in B.C.”

      B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix (with Dr. Bonnie Henry)
      Province of British Columbia

      Comparisons to other locations

      In modelling comparing B.C. to other countries, Dix pointed out that the number of B.C. cases and the impact of public health measures in the province appear closer to South Korea, which has been one of several Asian locations successful in curtailing the spread of the virus, and well below situations in Hubei in China or Northern Italy.

      Dix explained that Italy and Hubei were used for comparison, as in the previous modelling presentation on March 27, to help prepare the province “should those trajectories…become a reality in British Columbia”. However, he explained that these two jurisdictions won’t appear on future modelling as they are now “less important” as reference points for B.C.

      For cumulative diagnosed cases per million population, B.C.’s rate is closer to Australia’s levels than Canada. In comparison to other province, B.C.’s rate is closer in confirmed cases per million population to Saskatchewan than Quebec, Ontario, or Alberta.

      Dr. Henry said that rates and numbers in B.C. have been below what was potential, based on what has happened in other places around the world, and that we are experiencing a “slowing of our rate of new infection”, which needs to continue.

      “The difference between what could have been and what actually happened here in B.C. is because of the measures that we, as people in B.C., took together, each of us individually and collectively,” she said.

      Moving forward

      Dr. Henry said that while we need to wait for a vaccine to be developed, we need to figure out how to manage the time before that happens.

      “Our goal…is to control transmission and growth of any new cases…and minimizing any of the negative, unintended consequences of these public health measures that we have put in place,” she explained.

      She said they are trying to figure out the right amount of restrictions that will prevent “explosive growth” but to enable society to begin “moving again”.

      Dr. Henry cautioned that things aren’t going to be the same as they were before restrictions were implemented.

      “All of the sacrifices that we have been making across B.C. for the last month and even longer will be for naught if we don’t continue to take those measures now and thoughtfully and carefully open up as we are able to and to make sure we are monitoring carefully across…B.C. to make sure that we don’t end up having a surge that overwhelms our system in the coming weeks,” she said.

      While she said that they they will be developing an evidence-based plan for how to reopen things, she emphasized the importance of continuing on with current health measures in the near future.

      Dix said that “we’re a long way from done” but that the sacrifices that British Columbians have made, from small to large, have made an “enormous difference”.

      He admitted that this unprecedented situation of determining how to move forward will be a difficult process that will require “creativity, imagination, care, and adaptation” so that gains that have been made aren’t lost.

      “We know that this pandemic won’t be over until a significant portion, a majority of the world’s population, becomes immune to this new virus, and that will not happen for some time,” he said. “Together what we have to do is we have to use our strengths…to find a way that successfully continues to suppress the spread of the virus, keeps our loved ones as safe as possible, but gets our society moving again….Whatever actions we take, we know that there’s a significant human cost if we get it wrong.”

      The B.C. government announced on April 15 that the provincial state of emergency, which had been declared for the pandemic on March 18, has been extended to April 28.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.