B.C. Minister of Health Adrian Dix has defended measures in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, even as his province set one-day case counts records on Friday and Saturday.
“Right now they’re strict measures and we need everyone to dig in,” Dix said in an interview Sunday. “This is the time to follow those measures.”
Dix along with Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry cancelled indoor dining, in-person worship and group fitness classes last week to curb an alarming growth in COVID-19 cases.
Other measures in place since November include restricting indoor gatherings to individual households only and to avoid travel to other health regions.
In early March, the province allowed for British Columbians to gather outside in groups of up to 10 people, following four months of restrictions on social gatherings.
Surge in young patients
Dix said on Sunday that B.C.’s latest COVID-19 measures were very strict, and did not say if other new measures could be coming in days ahead.
A record 2,090 new cases of COVID-19 for Friday and Saturday were announced in a release from the province on Saturday, but it did not include information about deaths, variants of concern or the number of active cases.
The 1,018 new cases on Friday and 1,072 new cases on Saturday were both single-day infection records.
The release said 90 patients were in critical care, which was up 11 from 79 on Thursday.
Dix said on Sunday that a higher proportion of younger people are becoming ill from the disease.
“I’m not one bit happy about where we are at now,” he said, adding that provincial measures are targeting indoor transmissions.
On Saturday, a tweet from Dr. Kevin McLeod of Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver said hospitals are seeing a surge in young patients needing serious medical intervention for illnesses caused by COVID-19.
BC we have a problem. The hospitals are much busier last 72 hours. Significant increase in COVID cases especially in younger people who are coming in around day 10 from initial disease onset. Presenting really sick. Needing 100% oxygen to stay alive teetering on intubation sick.
Dix said he saw the tweet and said its message was an important one.
“What it says to everybody is this is the time to take care,” he said. “Right now is the time to really follow public health orders whether you’re 25 or 75.”
The minister also said B.C. had delivered a record number of vaccinations this past week.
A total of 856,801 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in B.C. to date, including 87,455 second doses.
Vaccine appointments are currently open for seniors aged 72 and up, Indigenous people over the age of 18 and people that the province has deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable.
People between the ages of 55 and 65 are also eligible for the AstraZeneca vaccine in the Lower Mainland while more communities are expected to be added by the end of next week.
No travel, says Dix
Dix has also pleaded with people to stay local this weekend, as he said unnecessary travel has contributed to the rise in infections.
Please – do not travel outside your community for vacation or recreation right now. We have seen too many cases of people travelling outside their health authority region and not using their layers of protection, leading to outbreaks and clusters in their home community.
In the Southern Interior, Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff said it appears that more people are visiting her community this weekend than over the past two weeks, but not as much as a normal year.
She says people coming are doing so to play golf, visit wineries or be at properties they own and are playing it safe.
“We offer Canada’s warmest welcome, that’s our motto, and so it seems unusual. But I appreciate the fact that people are looking after themselves and looking after our businesses and looking after the community by obeying … the health regulations. I don’t see it being a problem.”
B.C.’s provincial health officer is seeking an injunction prohibiting gatherings by three Christian churches that are challenging her orders suspending in-person religious services.
Lawyers for Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C.’s attorney general will be in B.C. Supreme Court on Friday seeking orders against the leaders of Langley’s Riverside Calvary Chapel, Abbotsford’s Immanuel Covenant Reformed Church and the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack.
The province filed an application for the injunction last week along with a response to a petition by the churches and a handful of others who want to overturn Henry’s orders.
According to the court documents, the province is seeking an order that would prevent elders and members from gathering to worship in their churches and from organizing celebrations, ceremonies, baptisms, funerals or any other “event” as defined by Henry’s orders.
The order would also authorize police to detain anyone they have grounds to believe is planning to attend a religious service organized by any of the three churches.
Freedoms ‘not absolute’
The application for the injunction comes just days after Henry announced an indefinite extension to the orders she issued last November suspending all events and social gatherings in an effort to reduce COVID-19 transmission.
In a petition filed in early January, pastors with the three Fraser Valley Christian churches claim that Henry is violating rights to expression and religious worship guaranteed by the Constitution by shutting churches while allowing restaurants and businesses to remain open.
Their petition seeks to overturn the order against in-person worship.
The province filed a response to the petition last week, claiming there is “no question that restrictions on gatherings to avoid transmission of (COVID-19) limit rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
But the province says the limits are justified.
“Rights and freedoms under the charter are not absolute,” the response says.
Protection of the vulnerable from death or severe illness and protection of the health-care system from being swamped by an out-of-control pandemic is also clearly of constitutional importance.– Provincial response to petition
“Protection of the vulnerable from death or severe illness and protection of the health-care system from being swamped by an out-of-control pandemic is also clearly of constitutional importance.”
Offer ‘sadly rings hollow,’ pastor says
An affidavit from acting deputy provincial health officer Dr. Brian Emerson states that the science shows that COVID-19 spreads better in indoor settings where people from different households gather for longer than 15 minutes.
“Clusters of COVID cases stemming from religious gatherings and religious activities have been noted since the onset of the pandemic globally, nationally and in British Columbia,” the application for the injunction says.
The province’s response says Henry wrote to pastors at the Riverside Calvary Chapel and the Free Reformed Church in December after she became aware of their intention to defy her orders.
The pastor of the Free Reformed Church of Chilliwack allegedly wrote back to say Henry’s “offer to consider a request from our church to reconsider your order sadly rings hollow.”
The court documents say Henry consulted widely with faith leaders before issuing the order to suspend in-person religious services.
Churches also have the ability to ask for reconsideration under Section 43 of the Public Health Act.
The response says one such application led to an exemption for synagogues to hold services in open tents with no more than 25 people present.
The three churches at the heart of the lawsuit allegedly filed for reconsideration at the end of January — after suing the government.
The province says no decision should be made on the petition to overturn Henry’s orders until she has had a chance to consider their applications for an exemption from the rules.
Province cites threat of variants
The province’s application for an injunction says complying with Henry’s orders at this point is “critical” because of the threat posed by 18 cases of new variants of the coronavirus first detected in the U.K. and South Africa that have been found in B.C.
The province says the churches have provided no evidence from anybody with a scientific or medical background to say the orders are not reasonable.
“By contrast, the Attorney General and Provincial Health Officer have provided evidence that transmission occurs in social settings … that there is evidence from British Columbia, Canada and around the world of transmission in gatherings, and in particular, religious gatherings,” the application for the injunction says.
The churches are being represented by the Calgary-based Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms.
In a statement, lawyer Marty Moore said the province’s data claims that 180 positive COVID cases have been associated with religious services but does not indicate whether health guidelines were being followed.
“Our clients continue to diligently implement health guidelines and protocols to minimize any risk of COVID transmission, and will be providing the court with evidence attesting to the safety of their services,” Moore wrote.
“The actions of the government to seek an injunction against these three churches who have brought a petition for judicial review of the public health orders does not appear to reflect a genuine effort to advance public health concerns.”
‘Grassroots’ Christian group seeks intervenor status
On Wednesday, Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson is scheduled to hear an application to intervene in the case from the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA), a group that describes itself as a “grassroots Christian political advocacy organization.”
According to the application, the group speaks for reformed Christians who attend 165 congregations in Canada, including 28 in B.C.
“The impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the practice of in-person public worship (including celebrating communion) has been the top issue of concern for ARPA Canada’s constituency since March 2020,” the application reads.
“That constituency has been profoundly impacted by the orders under review in this proceeding — likely more so than certain other religious groups.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Rebecca Hickman would carefully watch each sample being tested for the novel coronavirus in her lab at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
“I was so afraid of getting a positive,” the public health laboratory technologist told CBC this week.
That meant she was paying close attention as the first test came back positive at about 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 27, 2020.
“I actually started to see it get positive within a few seconds,” Hickman recalled. “My first feeling was sheer terror, from a personal point of view.”
The co-designer of B.C.’s test, medical laboratory technologist Tracy Lee, was in a meeting as the results were coming in. She remembers getting a call from Hickman and rushing to the lab to watch the test complete.
Lee felt “both fear and relief” as the test came back positive — fear for what this meant for the people of B.C., but relief that the test was working as planned.
Hickman shared those mixed emotions.
“To design, validate and implement a molecular laboratory test usually takes months if not years, and so to do that in the span of days is a huge achievement,” Hickman said.
There was also some excitement. She said she “felt like I was a part of something huge.”
Hickman spent the rest of that first afternoon sequencing a portion of the genome from the positive sample, and by midnight the lab had confirmed it was SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.
It had been a 16-hour workday.
“I went home and slept for five hours, then came back,” she recalls.
The next day, British Columbians watched as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry confirmed the inevitable. The virus was here in B.C.
“This is the first time in my life I’ve ever found things out before I read it in the news,” Hickman said.
‘Instability and craziness’
A year later, B.C. has confirmed 66,779 cases of the novel coronavirus and 1,189 people have died.
Hickman has gone from anxiously checking the totals after the daily afternoon update from health officials to barely noticing as B.C. records hundreds of cases each day. She says COVID fatigue is real.
There have been difficult times, like in the spring when lab supplies and personal protective equipment began to run out.
“The instability and craziness of it all has been the hardest part,” Hickman said.
Watch: Rebecca Hickman recalls finding B.C.’s first case of COVID-19
Rebecca Hickman was just nine months into her new job at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control when she confirmed B.C.’s first case of the novel coronavirus. 1:11
Today, much of her time is spent doing whole genome sequencing for about 15 to 20 per cent of COVID-19 cases.
That work helps health officials track the new, more infectious variants that have popped up in different parts of the world. It’s also used for outbreak response — scientists can determine how the virus is spreading through a community or health-care facility and whether cases are being introduced from new sources.
Hickman was just nine months into her job at the B.C. CDC when she discovered the first case.
She said she’s proud to have played a part in such a major moment in history.
“It has been easily the most difficult year of my life but also the most fulfilling. What we have achieved here over the last year is huge,” Hickman said.
British Columbia’s health minister has ordered an immediate review of alleged misspending by the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) during the COVID-19 crisis.
The order comes after CBC News brought forward concerns raised by multiple sources with intimate knowledge of operations within the PHSA, which is charged with ensuring access to a provincial network of health-care services.
The whistleblowers accuse B.C.’s central health authority of squandering $ 7 million on the purchase of unusable face masks from China; hundreds of thousands of dollars on unnecessary renovations to its executive offices; and tens of thousands of dollars on high-end catered meals for executives and their staff.
Insiders say the costs were racked up despite Ministry of Health orders to end discretionary spending and direct every dollar to front-line workers fighting the pandemic.
“I was shocked and felt it was simply unconscionable,” said one source.
CBC News has agreed to protect the informants’ identities because they fear professional repercussions.
“As a taxpayer, it makes me sick. It’s wasteful,” said a second insider.
Health Minister Adrian Dix moved quickly after being shown their concerns.
“I appreciate these allegations being raised to me,” Dix said in a statement to CBC News. “I have directed the deputy minister of health to assess PHSA’s decisions and conduct … and provide advice and recommendations to me.”
New president, new spending
The whistleblowers claim the misspending started shortly after Feb. 3, when the PHSA board hired a new president and CEO from Montreal, Benoit Morin.
Morin is paid $ 352,000 a year, and his accommodation and a car are provided — part of his relocation package.
Both the PHSA and Morin declined to be interviewed, stating the minister has responded on their behalf.
Dix’s written announcement of a review includes the health authority’s submitted response to him — confirming some allegations while denying others.
The health minister indicated the PHSA’s answers will be scrutinized.
$ 7M worth of masks deemed unusable
The most costly mistake by the PHSA was the purchase of unusable face masks in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The health authority, in its response to Dix, confirms that Morin personally sought a supplier in his home province of Quebec “early in the pandemic.”
Of $ 11.5 million paid to the supplier, almost $ 7 million worth of masks brought in from China were deemed “problematic” and unusable in the health sector.
Sources said many were KN95 masks (Chinese standard) instead of N95 (North American standard) and failed fit tests, while other masks were deemed to be counterfeit.
The PHSA admits it eventually wrote off $ 6.7 million of the cost at the end of March but said nothing of potential additional losses carried into this fiscal year.
Insiders said the mistake was kept from the public.
By comparison, the federal government admitted it had purchased unusable face masks through a Montreal supplier back in May. It publicly vowed it would not pay for the shipments.
It’s not known if B.C. used the same Montreal-based middleman.
The PHSA said it decided not to pursue court action against the supplier because “the cost … would have outweighed any potential return.”
The health authority said that since the face mask fiasco, the Ministry of Health has toughened ordering procedures, “ensuring due diligence is undertaken before a final purchase is made.”
Redone renos to executive offices
Sources also criticize renovations that were torn up to accommodate more renos.
After more than $ 17 million had already been spent on renovations to the health authority’s new Vancouver headquarters at 1333 West Broadway, the PHSA admits that changes were ordered to the 14th floor.
It says the total cost of the “re-renovations,” which are ongoing, is almost $ 400,000, including nearly $ 60,000 on “technology upgrades.”
Whistleblowers allege that the changes were made to give Morin a better view of downtown Vancouver and the North Shore mountains.
But the PHSA “refutes that the CEO’s office was moved to improve the view. The new CEO office is smaller and incorporates a previously existing meeting room, enabling more privacy.”
It also says the renovations created additional office space, Zoom-enabled facilities and a reception area to “improve security on the floor.”
Critics say that’s spin — and whatever the reasons, the money could have been much better spent.
“At the height of a pandemic, spending $ 400,000 on a re-reno versus putting that money toward … MRI or CT scanners or ventilators, it’s just inexcusable,” one whistleblower said.
The PHSA said the money came out of its internal capital budget.
Catered avocado toast and steak nicoise salads
Insiders also take issue with catered meals provided at PHSA headquarters, well past the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Staff say they observed breakfast and lunch being brought in for a total of 18 executives and their assistants virtually every workday until about May. This was reduced to just lunches that continued into June, even after local restaurants reopened.
The PHSA confirmed the numbers and dates.
Breakfasts reportedly included avocado toast with lemon ricotta berry crêpes. Lunches featured steak and salmon nicoise salads and sparkling water.
Sources estimate the total cost to taxpayers was between $ 30,000 and $ 40,000. At the same time, many front-line health-care workers were putting in 12-hour days, often without adequate meal breaks.
“What bothered me the most was seeing the people paid the least suffering the most,” one source said. “And the people paid the most got the most.”
The PHSA insists its executives were working around the clock, holding meetings at all hours, and were trying to keep “their bubbles small.”
Insiders insist that only happened in the early weeks of the pandemic.
Dix, B.C.’s health minister, said one aspect of his review will be to “assess the policies, guidance and spending directives … [for] catered meals.”
‘Cost-effective’ goals at odds with alleged spending
With a $ 3.7 billion annual budget, the PHSA co-ordinates services with B.C.’s regional health authorities, sets provincewide health standards and runs the B.C. Ambulance Service, among other responsibilities.
Its website states that it’s “driven to … be cost-effective.”
But insiders said key senior executives who once oversaw spending at the health authority no longer have their jobs.
They include the chief internal auditor, the chief financial officer and the executive vice-president of commercial services and procurement.
In addition, the PHSA’s veteran chief operating officer has revealed he’s retiring.
Sources say all four executives had raised concerns about spending prior to their departures being announced.
“No one will speak up internally anymore,” one insider said. “We’ve all seen what’s happened to some of our most respected leaders who’ve already tried.”
The health authority says its board hired a new CEO to lead organizational change — and the resulting changes to the senior leadership team were supported by the PHSA board.
Whistleblowers want more extensive probe
While the whistleblowers who spoke to CBC News welcome the review of spending ordered by B.C’s health minister, they want a deeper investigation.
“The ministry needs to investigate how something like this could have happened and why a number of warning signals were missed or ignored,” one source said.
Yet another insider wants B.C.’s auditor general to look into the spending decisions.
“These are public funds, and our health-care providers and their patients should be a priority — especially during a pandemic,” the insider said. “This is irresponsible … and it needs to stop.”
As for the PHSA’s justifications provided to the health minister, one whistleblower doesn’t mince words: “I think B.C. taxpayers are smart enough to see through all that — they can tell when someone is trying to put lipstick on a pig.”
CBC Vancouver’s Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email email@example.com.
British Columbia’s top doctor says that a second wave of COVID-19 caused by the novel coronavirus is inevitable in Canada, but that the lessons learned over the past few months will help inform future responses.
“The optimist in me would like to think that maybe it will go away, and the virus will mutate and won’t become worse,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in an interview with Matt Galloway, host of CBC Radio’s The Current.
“But you know what? We’ve never had a pandemic in recorded history that has not had a second wave.”
Henry, who was on the front lines of the country’s SARS outbreak from 2002 to 2003, has led B.C.’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. She has been praised for her response to the pandemic that successfully flattened the curve ahead of many other regions.
On Tuesday, the province entered the second phase of its pandemic response with many businesses and public spaces, including restaurants and beaches reopening with restrictions.
“Now is our time to regroup, learn as much as we can over the coming weeks and months, and prepare,” Henry said.
WATCH | ‘We’re not going to get everything right,’ says Henry:
Dr. Bonnie Henry says there might be some confusion about Phase 2 of B.C.’s reopening and it will take some time and patience to iron out.. 1:25
Testing, contact tracing crucial
As the country slowly reopens, Henry said that testing will continue to be crucial, particularly when the flu returns in the fall.
“We need to be able to understand the difference between influenza and COVID, and we’ll need to have testing in place to rapidly expand our testing if needed,” she said, adding that contact tracing for diagnosed cases will also play a role.
However, Henry pushed back at the idea of COVID-19 surveillance systems, such as those launched in China and Hong Kong, arguing they’re “probably not that helpful.”
“That one-on-one public health investigation is incredibly important, so if there [are] some applications that help us do that more efficiently, then that’s what we’re looking for.”
With the potential for a second wave, Henry said B.C. is already considering what measures may return — without delivering another blow to the economy.
“What I hope we can do is create a level of safety so that we can get our economy going, our schools going, work going — but not to the level that we were in December [before the virus],” she said.
“We’ll be looking at what were the measures that worked best to prevent transmission, and if we start to see increases in COVID, those are the things that we can put in place rather than the blanket shut everything down as we did before.”
“We want to make sure that there’s not a long period of time where [students] don’t have that direct contact, but we need to do it in a way that’s safe,” Henry said.
While schools have remained open throughout the pandemic for some students, including children of essential workers, they will now be open to all.
WATCH | B.C. schools to reopen part-time in June:
In-person attendance is voluntary, and schools will have to follow rigorous cleaning procedures and health guidelines. 2:06
When they reopen next month class sizes will be small, and students will stay with one teacher for the full day.
Several provinces have already announced plans to keep students at home until at least the fall. Henry said that B.C.’s blueprint for schools is what students across the country might expect for the next school year.
“We’ll be learning from the experience that we have in June to make sure that we have things that are working both for the staff and the educators … as well as the students and the family,” she said.
Make seniors’ care ‘part of our whole health-care system’
Changes to other sectors, including elder care, will be further off, however.
Long-term care homes, which have faced outbreaks across the country, remain off limits to residents’ relatives in the province.
“As soon as we think it’s safe, we will be allowing family members in, but it won’t be in the same way,” she said. “We won’t be able to have those group experiences right now and probably for a number of weeks or months.”
When asked whether the pandemic would lead to a reckoning for how elder care is handled in this country, Henry said that it has highlighted “challenges” that public health has “recognized for a long time.” She included annual influenza outbreaks and a precarious workforce among the difficulties.
“All of these highlight the vulnerabilities that something like a virus can cause when it gets into a care home and we don’t have those essential pieces in place that support people,” she said.
“I’m hopeful that we will redo how we think about providing care in seniors’ homes.”
Henry said that while the federal government’s role in long-term care needs to be “worked out,” there is “a justification for making seniors’ care — particularly in the long-term care homes that we have — making that part of our whole health-care system.”
Be kind, be safe
Throughout the pandemic, Henry has encouraged British Columbians to “be kind, be calm and be safe.”
“It may sound corny, but I do believe that kindness and support and working together is what will get us through this, particularly things that last as long as an outbreak like this,” she said.
WATCH | Henry concerned for families and health workers affected by coronavirus:
Dr. Bonnie Henry is concerned for families and health workers affected by the coronavirus. 2:11
A return to pre-COVID-19 life remains a long way off, she said, telling Galloway “the types of contact, the things that we did in December,” could remain off limits until a vaccine is developed.
But Henry is hopeful that some of the positive changes that have come out of the pandemic will stick around well beyond COVID-19.
“There’s new ways of approaching things … the fact that we need to clean our hands regularly and the fact that we need to respect people’s safe distance, particularly if we’re feeling unwell ourselves … and how do we support people to be able to stay home from work if they’re sick?” she said.
“Those are things that I hope won’t change.”
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Idella Sturino and John Chipman.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says the province’s 6th presumptive case of COVID-19, a woman in her 30s, flew on an Air Canada flight from Montreal to Vancouver on Valentine’s Day, eight days before she tested positive.
Officials say they have contacted those sitting close to her on the plane and flight staff as a precautionary measure.
Air Canada confirmed on Sunday that a passenger aboard one of its flights from Montreal to Vancouver on February 14 has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. The BCCDC later confirmed it was indeed the case announced on Thursday.
The airline said health authorities confirmed the case with it on Feb. 22, more than a week after the flight. Air Canada says it’s working with public health authorities and has taken “all recommended measures.”
The latest person to test positive for the virus lives in the Fraser Valley, about an hour drive east of Vancouver, but had been visiting Iran, where there has been a spike in cases.
On Sunday, the World Health Organization said there were 28 confirmed cases and five deaths from the virus in Iran.
The case surprised officials in B.C. when they learned the patient had only visited Iran, and not China or neighbouring countries that have had the bulk of COVID-19 cases.
The woman went to hospital upon returning to Canada with flu-like symptoms. She is recovering in isolation at home.
Presence in airport
The Montreal Airport Authority told CBC News that it had not been informed about the case by either Air Canada or B.C. public health authorities, but it also wouldn’t expect to hear if they did not feel it was necessary.
The plane departed from Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport. The airport said it doesn’t know how long the passenger may have been in the airport.
In B.C. there have been five confirmed cases of COVID-19. The newest presumptive case will make it six, once a test is confirmed by the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg.
On Friday, the health authority in the Fraser Valley, where the person with the latest case is located, sent letters to schools districts saying one of her contacts may have attended school before the woman was diagnosed.
The letter emphasized that the contacts of the woman were not showing any signs of symptoms or illness while attending school and are currently well.
“There is no public health risks at schools in the region,” said the letter. “There is also no evidence that novel coronavirus is circulating in the community.”
New Ontario case
Meantime, officials in Ontario confirmed another presumptive case of COVID-19 in Toronto. It is a woman who arrived from China on Friday.
The province says it’s unlikely that the woman was infectious and that she followed protocols such as wearing a mask throughout her travels.
The WHO said on Sunday that there are more than 78,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in 28 countries.
A new mental health directory specifically geared to B.C.’s first responders launched this week for those who need help to deal with the stresses of their work.
The directory features 150 specially trained mental health professionals across the province. The directory is open to the public, meaning spouses and children of first responders can also access the resource.
Matt Johnston, a firefighter and registered clinical counsellor based in Surrey, B.C., says the service is sorely needed.
“We are at a crisis [level] right across Canada, and these rates of psychological stressors are highest on the West Coast,” Johnston told Gloria Macarenko, the host of CBC’s On The Coast.
According to the B.C. Professional Fire Fighters Association, a 2017 study showed 44.5 per cent of first responders surveyed struggled with symptoms consistent with one or more psychological disorders. The general population rate is around 10 per cent.
Johnston said it’s not just stressors from the difficult life-and-death scenarios first responders face on the job, but daily struggles like the cost of living, relationships and struggles with parenting.
“Unfortunately, many of us in the first responder world wait until we’re in a crisis to call and to reach out,” he said.
As part of the database, clinicians were immersed in training classrooms to understand the pressures and culture of firefighting. For example, in one two-day seminar, the clinicians would listen in to the calls coming in on the speakers in a firehall.
“There’s all these different types of stressors where you can’t anticipate or predict the next call you’re going to have,” Johnston said.
“[Listening to the calls] was a real good learning experience, because that way they got familiar with the unique daily routine of being a firefighter.”
Ultimately, Johnston says, the database will serve as part of a bigger mental health strategy which includes training first responders early in their careers to value their mental health and seek help, and educating employers on the importance of extended health benefits and EAP programs.
Having the directory, he says, will provide first responders a trusted network of clinicians that they can work with throughout their career and enable them to approach retirement in a healthy way,
The Ontario government says it plans to join British Columbia’s proposed class action lawsuit against dozens of opioid manufacturers.
Attorney General Caroline Mulroney said on Monday that the province will introduce legislation that, if passed, would enable Ontario’s participation in the suit launched late last year.
She said Ontario would invest any potential awards won from the litigation into frontline mental health and addiction services.
British Columbia filed the proposed class action against dozens of pharmaceutical companies in a bid to recoup the health-care costs associated with opioid addiction.
Suit alleges companies falsely marketed opioids
The untested suit alleges the companies falsely marketed opioids as less addictive than other pain drugs and helped trigger an overdose crisis that has killed thousands since OxyContin was introduced to the Canadian market in 1996.
It names the maker of OxyContin — Purdue Pharma Inc. — as well as other major drug manufacturers, and also targets pharmacies, including Shoppers Drug Mart Corp. and its owner Loblaw Companies Ltd., claiming they should have known the quantities of opioids they were distributing exceeded any legitimate market.
In a separate Ontario case launched earlier this month, lawyers representing patients who became addicted to opioids filed a statement of claim seeking more than $ 1.1 billion in various damages from nearly two dozen companies.
That suit alleges the companies were negligent in how they researched, developed and marketed opioids starting in the 1990s.
Ontario to set up agency on mental health, addictions care
At the same news conference, Mulroney said the Ontario government will establish an agency to oversee mental health and addictions care across the province.
Mulroney said the current system is fragmented and confusing for patients and their families.
She added that the Mental Health and Addictions Centre of Excellence will be a central point for oversight of care.
The agency will be responsible for developing and standardizing care across the province.
Just over three years ago, on April 14, 2016, B.C. declared a public health emergency due to the number of deaths caused by the opioid crisis.
Since then, nearly 4,000 British Columbians have died from drug overdose deaths.
B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, spoke with CBC’s Mike Killeen in Victoria at The Harbour — an overdose prevention centre and supervised injection site — about the status of the province’s opioid crisis.
It’s been three years since a public health emergency was declared in this province. What has happened since?
In some ways, I despair that we are now three years in. But then we look back and we’ve made a lot of progress. The areas of mental health and addictions have been so neglected in this province, across the country, and really, globally, that we had a big hole to catch up and we are building systems now.
One of the reasons we declared the opioid emergency was to collect more information on the people who were overdosing and surviving to understand the problem better.
We do have a better understanding. We know that if we had not put in the measures that we have like these overdose prevention sites, supervised consumption, the naloxone program we have, that as many as 4,700 more people would have died which is frightening.
The good news is that [the number of deaths have] levelled off. The numbers last year were similar to 2017. When we look back though, we declared an emergency in 2016 when we were seeing 300, 400 people dying. And it has dramatically increased.
It really speaks to the complexity of the problems that we’re dealing with but also to the toxicity of the street drugs. That is really what is driving things here in B.C.
Are there any policy changes that have helped?
Things like naloxone were only available by prescription. We have been trying for years to get it available at least over the counter. Now it’s available free everywhere and it’s a very safe medication. We’ve used it for years. It’s very effective.
[This is not a legislated change but] one of the other really important things is we’ve been able to change the public discourse about people who use drugs and about addictions. People understand that these [people] are our community. It’s not just “those others.”
This facility, the Harbour Centre in Victoria, has been opened for almost a year now. How is it going?
There are 200 people a day coming in and using the facilities and another 800 to 1,000 requests for harm-reduction supplies from the facility.
They’ve had over 46,000 visits since it opened. There’s an average of three to four people a week who have overdosed at the facility. And like all of our facilities around the province, there have been no deaths associated with any of our supervised consumption sites or our overdose prevention sites.
That’s one of the important things for me. These are critical needs and they are working to keep people alive.
Going forward, might we see more facilities like this one?
Yes. Right now around the province, we have nine officially sanctioned supervised consumption service [sites]. And they’re very different models. We have mobile ones working in the Interior where there’s not such a concentration of people.
We’ve been really on the forefront of the world on how to do these in the way that meets the needs of different communities.
People are very focused that this is an ongoing problem and there is more that we need to do to continue to build those supports for people and those connections for people.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.