COVID-19 in B.C.: As B.C. prepares for Phase 3 of reopening, Dr. Bonnie Henry reaches her "nervous level"

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      For the 100th media briefing by B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix, Dr. Henry presented an update on provincial data collected since the start of the pandemic.

      While the charts, graphs, and models indicate that the province is maintaining manageable case numbers, Dr. Henry expressed some cautions as B.C. heads towards Phase 3 of the reopening plan.

      Daily update

      Today (June 23), Dr. Henry stated that there have been 13 new cases confirmed, for a cumulative provincial total of 2,835 since the pandemic began. So far, there have been 960 cases in Vancouver Coastal Health, 1,480 in Fraser Health, 131 in Island Health, 199 in Northern Health, and 65 in Northern Health.

      Currently, there are 174 active cases, with 16 of those people in hospital (and seven of those patients in intensive-care units or ICUs).

      The good news is that there aren’t any new health-care or community outbreaks, leaving seven active outbreaks in health care (six in long-term care facilities and one in acute care) with 372 residents (which includes three new residents) and 227 staff members affected.

      Sadly, there has been one new death (in a long-term care facility), bringing the total number of fatalities to 170.

      A total of 2,491 people (or 88 percent of all cases) have now recovered from the virus.

      Health Minister Adrian Dix
      Province of British Columbia

      Modelling update

      Dr. Henry presented an update on epidemiology modelling and projections (the last one was presented on June 4) to give an overview of where the province is in its fight against the coronavirus.

      Dr. Henry said that while B.C. has managed to flatten curve, there are still some imported cases from international travel, such as Canadians returning from abroad and temporary foreign workers.

      She noted that after the restart plan, which involved people increasing contact rates (including activity, mobility, and contacts) from 30 percent to around 65 percent of pre-COVID rates, there has been a slight increase in new cases, but there haven’t been any dramatic increases in hospitalizations.

      “If we did start to see increases in hospitalization, in particular, and ICU cases, those are warning signs to us,” she said, “and we would need to modify what we’re doing.”

      COVID-19: Going Forward
      Province of British Columbia

      In comparison with other provinces, B.C. has maintained a case rate (per one million population) on par with Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. Although above Manitoba, New Brunswick, PEI, and the territories, B.C. remains below Nova Scotia, Alberta, and Ontario, and far below Quebec. (Specific numbers were not given.)

      B.C.’s death rate (per one million population) is equal to Alberta, below Ontario, and far below Quebec.

      COVID-19: Going Forward
      Province of British Columbia

      Entering Phase 3

      Dr. Henry emphasized that British Columbians need to maintain what we have now and continue health measures into Phase 3, the start date of which has yet to be announced.

      “This is my nervous level, so we want to stay right about where we are and I don’t see it as changing in Phase 3,” she said.

      She said that restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people will remain in place for two reasons she has previously mentioned. 

      One reason is that if someone is infected, others present who become infected may then infect other people, which could lead to an “explosively increasing phase,” she explained.

      In addition, the number is a manageable one that will ensure contact tracers can find and notify people quickly to stop the chain of contagion.

      Thus far, she said, contract tracers have been able to find 97 to 99 percent of contacts within 48 hours after a case is identified.

      She said that it is everyone’s responsibility to keep social bubbles small and ensure that you know all the people you are in contact with, as this can help public-health teams notify everyone at risk and contain the spread of the virus as quickly as possible.

      If social contacts are ramped up to about 80 percent, she said, “We can expect to see that we will have more cases and we run the potential risk of having dramatic increase or rapid rebound in new cases.”

      “Until we have an effective treatment or vaccine, these rules for safe social interactions must continue to be maintained as part of our everyday life,” she said. “I know that if we go too far and let that number [65 percent] get too high, we risk a resurgence, and we have seen that happen in other parts of the world.”

      She also cited the example of New Zealand, which had lifted lockdown restrictions after eliminating transmission of the virus before new cases appeared. (Two women who arrived from the U.K. tested positive after leaving quarantine early and travelling across the country.)

      “Right now, we’re in a strange place,” Dr. Henry said, “because until we have the ability to protect the population from this virus, either through an effective treatment or a vaccine, we have to find a balance that’s going to keep people from getting sick in large numbers.…We’re at that sort of tail end—we’ve flattened the curve, but we know cases are going to happen. We know as we get out there that this virus is still there, and even if we think it’s gone from our communities, it can come back.”

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

      Testing wastewater for virus

      Dr. Henry said that the B.C. Centre for Disease Control is working on developing a method to monitor wastewater in the province as an indicator of when the virus is in a community.

      She said that similar testing has been conducted in the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, and Italy.

      For the past five weeks, she said, they have been conducting testing on wastewater in Vancouver and haven’t found any positives, which indicates a low level of transmission.

      She said she hopes it will be available by autumn and used particularly in smaller or remote communities to see if there is any evidence of community spread.

      There is some evidence, she explained, that it can be used as a “barometer of how much transmission there is in a community”.

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