COVID-19 in B.C.: Six deaths, U.S. border concerns, airborne transmission debate, and Black Lives Matter protests

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      While there were several consecutive days over the past few weeks without any COVID-19 deaths in British Columbia, a tragic number of fatalities occurred this past weekend. There has also been a COVID-19 exposure incident at a downtown nightclub and bar.

      Meanwhile, at today's daily B.C. COVID-19 update, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix responded to questions about airborne transmission, if there were any infections at outdoor protests, and continuing U.S. border concerns.

      Daily update: July 3 to 6

      As the last update was on July 3, Dr. Henry provided updates for the past three time periods today (July 6).

      From July 3 to 4, there were nine new cases; 15 new cases from July 4 to 5; and seven new cases from July 5 to 6, for a total of 31 new cases over the past three days.

      Currently, there are 166 active cases, with 16 of those individuals in hospital. (Four of those patients are in intensive-care units).

      The cumulative total number of COVID-19 cases in B.C. during the pandemic is now at 2,978, with 1,008 in Vancouver Coastal Health, 1,570 in Fraser Health, 132 in Island Health, 203 in Interior Health, and 65 in Northern Health.

      There aren’t any new health-care outbreaks, leaving four health-care outbreaks (three in long-term care facilities and one in acute care), involving a total of 393 residents and 246 staff.

      Tragically, there have been six deaths over the past three days (four in long-term care facilities in Vancouver Coastal Health) and two in Fraser Health. A total of 183 people have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic.

      A total of 2,629 people have recovered.

      After the news briefing, Vancouver Coastal Health issued a public bulletin that several individuals who attended the bar and nightclub at Hotel Belmont in Downtown Vancouver on June 27 and 29 have tested positive for the virus. Anyone who was on the premises on those dates is asked to monitor themselves for symptoms and to seek testing if symptoms develop.  

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

      Airborne transmission debate

      On April 6, 239 scientists in 32 countries signed an open letter asking the World Health Organization (WHO) to revise its recommendations because of evidence that the novel coronavirus in microdroplets, or tiny particles in the air that can potentially travel farther than droplets, can infect people.

      However, WHO was reported as stating that the evidence is not convincing.

      When asked about this debate, Dr. Henry said that there has been an ongoing discussion about this issue for many years, with COVID-19 being one of the latest viral infections to raise this question.

      She also said that in health care, “airborne-transmitted” means “viruses that are in very small particles that can last in the air for many hours often” or can even travel through circulation systems, which has been relevant to discussion of transmission of measles, smallpox, and bacterial infections like tuberculosis. 

      She explained that there is a gradation of droplets when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks.

      “It is the smaller ones that can be breathed deep into the lungs and it is the larger ones that are often deposited up in the back of the throat or in the upper part of the lungs,” she said.

      COVID-19 and influenza, she said, are primarily in larger droplets that are transmitted when someone infected is close to someone else.

      “We know that the amount of virus and the moisture the virus needs to stay alive is a bit more for some of these viruses, like influenza and COVID,” she said.

      She pointed out that everyone involved in this health-care debate agrees that the virus can be transmitted through the air and not transmitted long distances, but the disagreement, which she believes is an attempt “to foment a bit of controversy”, is over whether it can be spread by small aerosols versus larger droplets that tend to fall to the ground more readily.

      In addition, she pointed out that some people shed more virus than others. Even though they don’t know the reason why and can’t predict who will do so, she said that these individuals can cause “very rapid, explosive outbreaks” if they are present in certain settings, such as a large gathering indoors with lots of contact with others and poor ventilation.

      Consequently, she emphasized the need to have not just one but several layers of protective measures, including physical distancing, small numbers of people present, mask-wearing, hand-washing, and more.

      Black Lives Matter protests

      When asked if any COVID-19 cases have been linked to Black Lives Matter protests, Dr. Henry said none have been found in B.C., and that her colleagues in the U.S. also haven’t reported any linked to protests.

      She said that these findings were surprising, as health officials had expected these gatherings to be risky.

      Although they are uncertain why there have been no linked infections, she said there are several likely reasons, such as being outside, short periods of time spent next to other people, individuals maintaining distances, and people wearing masks.

      Nonetheless, she pointed out that U.S. health officials have seen COVID-19 transmission taking place outdoors between people spending time together in large groups, such as parties at beaches.

      “There’s something inherently different about what you’re doing with a group of people partying on a beach versus what we’ve been seeing with some of these protests,” she said.

      She said some possible differences may be that at parties, people may be spending long periods of time face to face with others (as opposed to everyone facing the same direction while listening to speakers).

      Dr. Bonnie Henry (with Adrian Dix)
      Province of British Columbia

      U.S. border concerns

      As the U.S. continues on its troubling trajectory of escalating COVID-19 cases and deaths, questions and concerns about the Canada–U.S. border remain.

      When asked about travel to and from the U.S. in the near future, Dr. Henry said she doesn’t foresee any changes to border restrictions.

      “We know that that’s how we got into trouble back in March…[when] we had a lot of people coming across the border,” she said. “A number of our new cases are people who’ve either travelled or have been in contact with somebody’s who just come back from the U.S.”

      She cited the example of new cases in her home province of P.E.I., which have been linked to a traveller from the U.S. who also infected people in Nova Scotia.

      “I cannot see vacation travel this summer from the U.S., given the rates that we’re seeing and how widespread it is in the U.S. right now, and it really shows us that once this virus starts to spread in the community, if we’re not taking those measures that many states took early on and you open up too much too soon, where people aren’t doing the things that we seem to be doing here very well in Canada and here in B.C., making sure you have these precautions in place, then you can get widespread transmission.”

      She said they haven't seen any evidence of anyone from U.S. with COVID-19 vacationing in B.C.

      When asked about British Columbians who are angry or upset at seeing American licence plates, she said she understands that these reactions can come from anxiety, fear, and all the suffering and sacrifices that people have had to make over the past few months.

      Once again, she reiterated that we may not know everyone’s story—she has previously said that Canadian border services informed her that most U.S. licence plates coming across the border belong to Canadians returning to Canada.

      However, she said that anyone who is concerned about the behaviour of someone who is a visitor should let them know “in a gentle way” what the expectations are in British Columbia and to model that behaviour themselves.

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