COVID-19 in B.C.: Dr. Bonnie Henry on B.C. travel and Chinese Canadian community's role in breaking the curve

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      Many experts predicted that British Columbia would be one of the hardest hit regions in Canada, if not North America, during the pandemic.

      In an in-depth profile of B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in the New York Times today (June 5), Toronto infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness was quoted as saying that “by all rights, British Columbia should have been clobbered.”

      However, he credited the fast action taken by health officials and Dr. Henry’s communication skills.

      But as the pandemic developed across the world, some of the locations closest to China have maintained some of the lowest case counts, while the most troubling hotspots have been farther away.

      That includes Canada, with rates highest in Ontario and Quebec and lower in B.C.

      The reasons for that counterintuitive manifestation became evident when Dr. Henry presented epidemiological data yesterday about where the virus in B.C. has been coming from, which may run counter to many presumptions.

      Daily update

      As the province ends the third week of its reopening plan, there was only one new case confirmed today, and there weren’t any new health-care or community outbreaks, according to a news release by Dr. Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix (in lieu of a news conference). There are currently five active health-care outbreaks and eight active community outbreaks.

      B.C. has had a cumulative total of 2,632 cases. (The news release stated that one case was removed from yesterday’s total because of a data error.)

      Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 908 cases in Vancouver Coastal Health, 1,335 in Fraser Health, 130 in Island Health, 195 in Interior Health, and 64 in Northern Health. (The news release stated that the number of cases in the Vancouver Coastal Health region has been adjusted by one case because of an error.)

      Currently, there are 193 active cases, with 21 of those individuals in hospital (five of whom are in intensive-care units).

      A total of 2,272 people (86 percent) have now recovered.

      Unfortunately, one new death brings the total to 167 people who have died.

      B.C. travel

      Both citizens and businesses are yearning for travel throughout the province to begin again after pandemic restrictions hit B.C.’s travel industry hard.

      When asked when people can start travelling within the province, Dr. Henry said she can’t offer a specific date—adding that she herself is eager to travel again.

      However, she hopes that when the province moves into its next phase in mid-June or July, travel will begin again, but she added that the timing depends on how things continue to play out during the current phase.

      She reiterated that travel has to be balanced with the anxieties of many smaller communities, which she said are “very afraid” of the virus.

      “They are concerned that if it gets into their community, they won’t be able to cope or we don’t have the medical support,” she explained.

      However, she pointed out that there is much more health support available now than earlier in the pandemic.

      She added that those within travel industries can help people feel more comfortable about making travel plans in the future by providing options that will accommodate for change or unexpected developments.

      “I will also encourage businesses to be flexible because there are many things that we still don’t control,” she said. “So having those policies that allow people to reschedule or change if they need to are also things that will build confidence in people for booking at this point in time.”

      She also reminded everyone that “we are not out of the woods” on a global level, citing dramatic increases in case numbers in place like Russia and Brazil.

      “When this virus is anywhere, we are all at risk,” she said.

      Dr. Bonnie Henry
      Province of British Columbia

      Keys to B.C.’s success

      While many blame China for the virus’s origin, particularly those who have been expressing their anger through attacks and vandalism against Asian Canadian individuals and organizations, the spread of the virus in B.C. has been due to other sources.

      Data that Dr. Henry presented yesterday may counter some of the misconceptions about the virus.

      In a pandemic analysis on June 4, Dr. Henry revealed that the vast majority of COVID-19 cases in B.C. have been virus strains that originated from Europe, Eastern Canada, and Washington state.

      In fact, almost three-quarters of the cases in Vancouver have been from Washington state, while over one half of the cases in the Fraser region have been from Europe or Eastern Canada.

      What’s more, within the Lower Mainland, Richmond managed to maintain the lowest case levels among five regions in Metro Vancouver.

      In a list of the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases from January 22 to May 31, the lowest number was in Richmond (88 cases), compared to 540 in Vancouver, 259 on the North Shore, 411 in the northern Fraser region, and 523 cases in the southern Fraser region.

      From May 18 to 31, again Richmond was the lowest with zero cases, while there was one on the North Shore, 13 in Vancouver, 10 in the northern Fraser region, and 57 in the southern Fraser region.

      When asked about Richmond and the local Chinese Canadian community’s response, including voluntarily wearing masks and beginning physical distancing long before other parts of Metro Vancouver were doing so (including staying away from restaurants, stores, malls, and other public places), Dr. Henry said that those actions “absolutely” contributed to stemming the pandemic here.

      “I think our approach early on, when we knew that most of the introductions into B.C. and into Canada and everywhere else in the world were coming from China, where we were working with the community, the community in B.C. themselves took this very seriously, where we supported people, and we talked about it in January and February about community activities to support people coming from China to self-isolate, and we, in public health, made sure that people who came in who had symptoms were tested, that we targeted our testing on people who we knew were at risk but that we had a broad testing strategy.”

      She noted there was a period when people didn’t realize the risk of the virus coming from other countries, because of a preoccupation with the outbreak from China.

      She said it became more challenging to find cases once cases coming from the U.S. increased (beyond just Washington state) and that the expansion of testing helped them find one of the first cases in a traveller arriving from Iran who hadn’t visited China.

      Public health webinar

      Dr. Henry will be participating in an Alumni UBC webinar entitled A Conversation With Dr. Bonnie Henry: How the Invisible Infrastructure of Public Health Offers Hope in a Pandemic, from 10 to 11 a.m. on Monday (June 8).

      As the seventh session in a webinar series on COVID-19, Dr. Henry, who is a clinical associate professor at UBC, and the dean of UBC medicine, Dr. Dermot Kelleher, will discuss public health and how some of its lesser-known elements play a role in addressing the pandemic.

      UBC Journalism instructor Kathryn Gretsinger will moderate the discussion.

      The event is open to all but space is limited. To register, visit the Alumni UBC website.

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