COVID-19 in B.C.: Back-to-school ad controversy, second wave questions, and more

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      Over the weekend, new case numbers remain high, hospitalized cases continue to rise, and there were a few deaths. 

      Although the increases are of concern to B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, she said that transmission rates remain low.

      However, she also added that the province needs to reduce case numbers in preparation for the respiratory virus season in the fall.

      Meanwhile, Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix responded to questions about a back-to-school ad featuring Henry that has come under fire from teachers as well as whether or not we’re in the second wave. 

      Daily update: August 29 to 31

      Dr. Henry provided updates for the past three time periods since the last update on August 28. 

      She announced that there were 86 new cases from August 28 to 29, 107 new cases from August 29 to 30, and 101 cases from August 30 to 31. A total of 294 cases (including three epidemiologically linked cases) were confirmed over those three days.

      The number of active cases has continued to increase—there are currently 1,107 active cases, rising from 974 on August 28.

      Meanwhile, the number of people in hospital continues to rise—from 23 on August 28 to 28 people now in hospital (with 10 of those patients in intensive care units). Of the hospitalized cases, Dix said that includes 22 patients in Fraser Health, three in Vancouver Coastal Health, two in Northern Health, and one person who resides outside Canada but is being cared for in Vancouver Coastal Health. 

      What has decreased is the number of people being monitored by public health due to contact with confirmed cases—from 2,796 individuals on August 28 to 2,723 people today, or a difference of 73 individuals.

      Unfortunately, there is one new outbreak in healthcare, with one staff member who tested positive at the Normanna Living longterm care home in Burnaby. 

      Two healthcare outbreaks have been declared over: at Dania Home in Burnaby and the Holy Family Hospital in Vancouver, the latter of which Henry said was a “very challenging outbreak”.

      There are currently 10 active outbreaks in healthcare, with eight in longterm care facilities and two in acute care units. Over the course of the pandemic, there have been 725 cases (440 residents and 285 staff) involved in healthcare outbreaks so far. 

      The Squamish Nation announced on August 28 that several of its members tested positive for COVID-19. As of August 30, 19 cases were confirmed though the number may increase. 

      The Kelowna community outbreak, which began over the Canada Day long weekend, has been declared over as there haven’t been any new cases linked to this cluster over several weeks. 

      Tragically, there have been four new deaths, raising the total number of fatalities to 208 people who have died during the pandemic.

      During the pandemic, there have been 5,790 cases in B.C., with 1,900 in Vancouver Coastal Health; 3,042 in Fraser Health; 175 in Island Health; 440 in Interior Health; 154 in Northern Health; and 79 among people who live outside Canada. 

      A cumulative total of 4,466 people have recovered.

      B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry
      Province of British Columbia

      Exposure incidents and air travel

      Vancouver Coastal Health announced that there is a potential COVID-19 exposure incident that took place at clothing-optional Wreck Beach all day on August 15. No further details were provided.

      The previously announced exposure alert for the Banter Room, which was originally stated to be from August 20 to 22 during operating hours, has since expanded to include—August 23, 24, and 25, according to VCH.

      Elsewhere in the city, Loblaw reported three staff members tested positive at three locations of the Real Canadian Superstore in Metro Vancouver. 

      One employee who tested positive last worked at the 7550 King George Highway location in Surrey on August 24.

      A second person at the 8196 120th Street location in Delta last worked there on August 20.

      A third individual was at the 2332 160th Street store in Surrey. The employee last worked at the location on August 27.

      Meanwhile, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) has added nine more flights, all domestic except for one, confirmed with COVID-19 cases:

      • Swoop flight 200 from Abbotsford to Edmonton on August 14;

      • Air Canada flight 303 from Montreal to Vancouver on August 16;

      • Swoop flight 235 from Edmonton to Abbotsford on August 17;

      • WestJet flight 3355 from Vancouver to Victoria on August 18;

      • Alaska Airlines flight 3304 from Seattle to Vancouver on August 17;

      • Air Canada flight 8212 from Prince George to Vancouver on August 21;

      • Air Canada Flight 128 from Vancouver to Toronto on August 23;

      • Swoop flight 141 from Hamilton to Abbotsford on August 23;

      • WestJet flight 138 from Vancouver to Edmonton on August 24. 

      To find out which rows are considered affected on these flights, visit the BCCDC website

      Anyone who was in an affected row or on these flights should reduce contact with others while monitoring for symptoms. In the event that symptoms develop, individuals should immediately self-isolate and call 811 to find out about testing. 

      School ad controversy 

      A provincial government advertisement that shows Henry talking to a class of students has stirred up criticism.

      Teachers have raised concerns that what appears in the ad—of Henry standing in front of five or six students—does not resemble what classrooms will appear like in the fall, particularly when the BCTF, teachers, and parents are asking for smaller class sizes. 

      When asked about this ad at today’s briefing, Henry clarified that it is not a commercial about what classrooms will look like this fall.

      “What that was, was me as the public health officer talking with children and their parents about the things that they can expect in the new school year, about some of the public health issues,” she said.

      She added that there were more than six children present and that it was held in a classroom because that was what the children wanted.

      “It was an opportunity for me to answer the many questions I was getting from children,” she said.

      She also clarified that the reason what appears in the ad will be different from what will appear in schools is because the situation was different and involved children from different schools, rather than just one learning group. 

      “When we’re talking about schools—in a regular, day-to-day basis for schools—what we’re looking at is the classroom as your unit of connection and that is a set controlled environment and we know it will be the same children every day that will be in that small group with the same adults every day,” she explained. “The numbers of teachers and children that they’ll interact with is contained and limited, and we will have distancing within those classroom settings within those small numbers of groups of children so it is a different scenario than bringing together a variety of children, who go to many different schools including that school, for a limited time to spend time with kids who are not in their social connections or not in their learning group.”

      Dix said it’s important to recognize that this is a public health advertisement that was intended to “deliver a public health message about what people can expect when they return to school—what children can expect, what teenagers can expect, what parents can expect”. 

      By that, he explained that the message is that students will have to behave differently: “that all of us are going to need to wash our hands a lot, to stay home when we’re sick, that you’ll have to wear a mask sometimes, and that you’ll mostly be with the same group of teachers and friends”. 

      While he acknowledged that there is “very significant anxiety around back-to-school” and he said he respects the concerns of teachers, parents, and students, he said the ad is “not a representation” of what schools will look like nor is it “central casting” but a conversation between Henry and children.

      “The effort here is not to engage in what is—let’s face it—a robust debate about the back-to-school plan but for the public health officer to deliver a public health message to people in the province who may have not have heard us here at 3 o’clock but will need to hear that message because school will look different this year,” he said.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix
      Province of British Columbia

      Second wave questions 

      Although case numbers have been steadily rising in B.C., Henry said that we “still have low transmission rates in our communities”.

      Nonetheless, she observed that we’ve been going through a “messy” period during reopening phases, and that we do need to bring things under control.

      “We’ve been able to do a lot of things that we hadn’t been able to do for quite a few months,” she said, “and that’s because we all worked together and got the rates quite low here in this province, and now we need to go back to that as we’re moving into what we know is respiratory season. We know there are going to be more challenges ahead, and this is our time to prepare for that, and to get back to our basics again.”

      She added that it’s not possible to simply shut down specific sectors and that “we need to balance all of it as we go forward, and it’s a very challenging thing”. 

      When asked if we’re in a second wave already, Henry was reluctant to deem it as such. 

      “Thanks to the good work of everybody in British Columbia, our first wave was quite low so these are numbers that we are not used to seeing,” she said, “and we don’t want them to go any higher.”

      She explained that the purpose of the measures that were put in place in March were to ensure that the healthcare system wasn’t overwhelmed.

      “And we managed to do that really, really well,” she said.

      She said that we are experiencing a “surge” but “we’re not seeing that flooding of hospitals, we’re not seeing large numbers of people in intensive care, and we’re not seeing the transmission and rates in the older age group that we were seeing” in the first wave.

      She said we do need to get “back on track” and “get down again to the flat”.

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