COVID-19 in B.C.: Dr. Bonnie Henry discusses testing expansion, retail and restaurant issues, and more

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      At the daily B.C. COVID-19 update today (April 20), B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix addressed issues about expanding the testing strategy as well as when and how restrictions might be lifted.

      Daily update

      Dr. Henry stated that there have been 52 new confirmed cases since the last update was given on April 18 (29 cases from April 18 to 19 and 23 cases from April 19 to 20), which means the province has had a total of 1,699 cases. That cumulative total includes 700 cases in Vancouver Coastal Health, 705 in the Fraser Health, 102 on Vancouver Island, 153 are in Interior Health, and 39 in Northern Health.

      Among the new cases are seven workers who returned from the Kearl Lake oilsands site near Fort McMurray in Alberta. Dr. Henry issued an order that anyone who has returned from that site since March 15 must self-isolate for 14 days.

      Also since the last update, five people have died (three from April 18 to 19 and two from April 19 to 20), raising the total number of fatalities to 86.

      Currently, there are 104 patients in hospital, with 49 of those individuals in intensive care units, while 1,039 people have recovered to date.

      A new outbreak at the Chartwell Willow Retirement Community in Maple Ridge has raised the total number of affected longterm care homes to 20, with 307 people diagnosed with the virus.

      A total of six outbreaks at longterm care facilities are now resolved. 

      In correctional facilities, there are now 75 confirmed cases at the Mission Institution in the Fraser Valley while the one individual at the Okanagan Correctional Centre in Oliver, B.C., has since recovered.

      Testing Strategy

      Dr. Henry stated that their testing approach has been broadened again.

      It has been changed on March 16 to focus on the high risk populations (such as community outbreaks, critically ill individuals, healthcare workers, and longterm care residents) but was expanded on April 9.

      “We want to avoid another spike in community cases, and that’s why we are changing the strategy again to open it up and ensure that we continue to find everybody who needs to be isolated and where we need to do contact tracing in the province,” she said.

      Anyone with symptoms can be tested through family physician or community testing centres (to find a location, call 811).

      Dr. Henry explained that the test has “very limited benefit” and is “not necessarily valid” for those without any symptoms.

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

      Restrictions or reopening?

      Based on the trajectory from modelling that was presented on April 17, Dr. Henry said that they aren’t expecting anything to change this month. However, she said that they are looking at mid-May “if things continue to go the way things have been going” when reopening of some things could be possible.

      She said that can’t predict what will happen but she said she doesn’t foresee lifting the order for banning mass gatherings for over 50 people “in the near future”. That includes weddings, funerals, and religious observances; concerts, festivals, and parades; conferences; and both domestic and international travel. 

      After seeing examples from around the world, she said they know that those types of events remain “risky”.

      She added that restrictions of varying degrees will most likely remain in place until a vaccine is made, which could be up to a year away.

      “We have averted a major crisis in our province and it’s because people have done what we have asked them to do,” she said, emphasizing the need to be patient as we continue on. “This virus is insidious. It can spread to others when you’re not even realizing that you’re sick yourself. So we can’t let our guard down yet. There will be a time when we can do this. But right now, it’s very important for us to stay the course.”

      In particular, she said they want to avoid the exponential growth of cases that has devastated communities in China, Italy, and the United States.

      Restaurants and retail

      While many restaurants have adapted to the pandemic health orders as required by shifting to takeout-only service, Dr. Henry said she is looking to the food and beverage industry to come up with innovative ways on how these establishments can reopen to guests.

      On March 20, Dr. Henry had ordered all restaurants in B.C. to end dining services and to shift to take-out or delivery service only just as the City of Vancouver issued the same order for the city's food establishments at the same time.

      Dr. Henry said that reopening such places will have to entail doing so while protecting employees as as well as customers, and that these businesses will also have to prevent people from “getting together in large groups”, which remains a health risk.

      However, she also acknowledged that these requirements will be particularly challenging for smaller restaurants to address.

      “It’s not going to be back to what we were before unfortunately—for a time,” she said. “This is not forever. This is for the foreseeable months, certainly this summer and then we’ll have to think again about things again into the fall as the influenza and respiratory virus season starts and we may need to rethink some things.”

      She also reassured retail workers, who may be worried about contracting the virus at their workplace, that preventative measures such as having plexiglass barriers, which she calls an “engineering control”, are a “very effective method” to stop droplets from spreading.

      Other measures, such as maintaining safe distances, cleaning hands, avoiding touching the face, and wearing masks (“even in situations like our longterm care homes”) are things she said that they know do work in protecting people from spreading the virus.

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