COVID-19 in B.C.: Masks on transit, air travel issues, and a bravo to British Columbians

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      Consistent with numbers over the past week, the number of new cases confirmed today (July 16) remained above 20.

      Before today’s daily B.C. COVID-19 update, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry revealed the results of research that has affirmed that the province has been effective in mitigating the spread of the virus.

      Meanwhile, the B.C. Coroners Service released their illicit-drug report for June. As in May, the province saw a record number of deaths—175 people died in June.

      Dr. Henry said that about 80 percent were men between the ages of 19 and 49; two-thirds died in their own homes, often alone; and, in most cases, those closest to them were unaware of their drug use.

      “This is a tragedy for all of us,” Dr. Henry said of the deaths and the ongoing crisis, which is the other public-health emergency occurring in the province in addition to the pandemic.

      More coverage of this subject will appear in a forthcoming Georgia Straight article.

      Daily update: July 16

      Dr. Henry announced today that there are 21 new COVID-19 cases (18 people who tested positive and three epi-linked cases).

      A cumulative provincial total of 3,170 cases have been confirmed during the pandemic, including 1,028 cases in Vancouver Coastal Health; 1,667 in Fraser Health; 136 in Island Health; 223 in Interior Health; 65 in Northern Health; and 51 in people who live outside Canada.

      There are 192 active cases, including 15 patients in hospital (three of those in intensive-care units).

      With no new health-care outbreaks, there remain three active outbreaks—two in long-term care facilities and one in an acute-care unit. Health-care outbreaks have involved 655 cases, including 400 residents and 255 staff.

      There are no new community outbreaks.

      Dr. Henry said that there are now 27 cases connected to the Kelowna exposure incidents that took place from June 25 to July 6. Of those cases, 18 cases are from the Interior Health region, while nine are from Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions.

      In addition, there are now four cases linked to the active community outbreak at the Krazy Cherry Farm in Oliver.

      Once again, there's good news that there are no new deaths. The total fatalities remain at 189.

      A total of 2,789 people have now recovered.

      Dr. Danuta Skowronski
      B.C. Centre for Disease Control

      B.C. infection rates

      This morning, Dr. Henry presented the results of an antibody study conducted in the province, which began in January and February.

      This research investigation was a joint effort by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), UBC, and LifeLabs, and involved serology testing.

      Unlike tests used to determine if people are currently infected with COVID-19, serology tests are used for people who have been infected in the past, have since recovered, and have developed antibodies (produced by the immune system in response to the virus).

      Dr. Henry explained that it takes two to six weeks for people to develop antibodies after an infection.

      “The reality is that they [antibody tests] are not reliable at all early on, and so you have to wait until at least a month after the bulk of infections to have a good understanding of what happened in your community,” she said.

      She said the report is the first of its kind released in Canada, and that this type of information is challenging to obtain.

      The results, she explained, will help them understand the impact of the virus on British Columbians by informing them how many people may have been infected in the past, particularly in March, when hundreds of British Columbians were returning from abroad, tests weren't readily available in all parts of the province, and criteria for COVID-19 testing was narrowed to high-risk groups.

      She said they collected 1,000 samples from labs across the Lower Mainland, which is the “highest-risk area in the province” and had the most cases, and conducted testing at two different time periods (March and May) to take "snapshots" of the virus.

      Although this study doesn’t take into account long-term-care-facility residents, she said the results span 10 age groups.

      Dr. Henry said that the results show that less than one percent of people in B.C. are estimated to have been infected. (She said that similar studies have revealed an 11 percent rate in Spain and a 14 percent rate in New York City, during specific timeframes.)

      Accordingly, BCCDC’s Dr. Danuta Skowronski said that fewer than one in 100 residents in the Lower Mainland were infected during the first wave, and that these results reinforce previous surveillance findings. She said that, therefore, community infection rates elsewhere in the province would be even lower.

      Thus, Dr. Henry said, about eight times more people than those who tested positive likely had the virus in the province.

      Dr. Skowronski said the results, which she didn’t anticipate to be so low, were a “pleasant, happy surprise” and that we “did better than we expected”.

      “A big bravo to British Columbians,” she said. “They signify success in our containment of SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] in our communities, whereas in other areas, as you know, there has been much more substantial transmission of the virus.” 

      While she applauded the efforts that everyone contributed, she added that British Columbians need to continue with health precautions as the virus remains present.

      “The flipside of that is that we cannot rest on our laurels,” she said. “We cannot assume that we are in the all clear, because it also means that there is still substantial residual susceptibility in the population.”

      While Dr. Henry said that instead of doing further random serology testing of the general population, they are looking into how to do more targeted testing to determine who has been “most impacted by this virus over the last few months”—such as specific occupations, ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups, and geographic groups—by using the results of online provincial survey results.

      Dr. Henry clarified that researchers still don’t know yet if a person becomes immune to the coronavirus if they have antibodies or for how long if a person has antibodies, which is still being studied.

      B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix
      Province of British Columbia

      Travel and transit

      As reported earlier today, four more flights to and from B.C. have been confirmed as being linked to COVID-19 cases.

      Dr. Henry expanded upon what she has previously said about the lack of useful information provided to public-health teams from airlines about passengers.

      She said that flight-manifest information (documents with lists of passengers) have long lacked information that is helpful in tracking down and contacting people who may have been exposed to the virus.

      What would help, she explained, is if airlines took passengers’ names, telephone numbers, and addresses.

      “An address is really important because that helps us understand where we have to look for those people,” she said, “and if we can get that, that facilitates us being able to find people quickly and stop those chains of transmission, and that, in turn, makes air travel safer.”

      She said that airlines could implement a system like food and beverage establishments are doing, by recording contact information of all guests.

      Meanwhile, she was asked about whether wearing a mask should be enforced on transit.

      “I absolutely think everybody on transit should be wearing a mask—everybody who can,” she began, before explaining that enforcing mask-wearing is a challenge, as there have been “unfortunate events related to people making it an issue”.

      She added that it can be difficult to distinguish who is and isn’t capable of wearing a mask for various reasons.

      However, to dispel any misunderstandings or misinformation about masks, she clarified out that masks are safe to wear.

      “They do not cause you to become hypoxic [a condition caused by deprivation of oxygen]; they do not increase your risk of keeping viruses or bacteria or other things in; they do not exacerbate asthma or other lung conditions,” she said.

      She added that masks can take some time to become used to and comfortable wearing.

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