Experts are growing increasingly concerned about the spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants in B.C. and a consequent spike in serious COVID-19 cases that they fear could overwhelm hospitals in the province.
Doctors say they’re seeing younger patients with the disease — aged 20 to 50 — requiring critical care, in contrast with predominantly elderly people who got badly sick during the first year of the pandemic.
“We do know that a lot of that is the variant[s], and it does seem like it is a more transmissible strain and it also seems that people do get sicker with some of these variants,” said Dr. Gerald Da Roza, head of medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C.
Da Roza says intake at the intensive care unit (ICU) has increased in the past few weeks at the hospital, where he reported that patients have spilled over into other departments.
“Some people say this is the busiest we’ve been in 15 years,” he said.
WATCH | How the P1 variant is taking hold in B.C.:
The P1 COVID-19 variant, first seen in Brazil, is creating a big problem for health officials because of how quickly it spreads. Currently concentrated in the Vancouver area, modelling shows it could spread out of control by late April. 2:06
The variants of concern in B.C. are B117, first detected in the U.K., and P1, associated with Brazil. Cases of both have so far been concentrated in the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health authority regions, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Monday.
He said the number of cases of the P1 variant close to doubled over the Easter weekend.
“The most transmissive variants of COVID-19 are ultimately going to take over,” the minister said.
Dix said 60 of the current 320 coronavirus cases in B.C. hospitals are related to variants of concern. He also confirmed there are pressures on ICUs, especially at Royal Columbian and Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver.
‘Worrisome’ spread of P1
B.C. is now being identified by epidemiologists across the world as a notable hotspot for the P1 variant that has spread unchecked through Brazil, where COVID-19 has killed more than 300,000 people.
Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, a Washington, D.C.-based epidemiologist and health economist, says the accelerating community spread of mutations in B.C. is “worrisome.”
He said that the P1 variant is more than twice as transmissible as the original coronavirus and initial data suggests it causes higher mortality rates and affects younger people more than the initial strand.
Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, raised the alarm a few weeks ago when he compared B.C. to Florida, where variants are also growing in number.
Health Canada reported 379 cases involving variants of concern in B.C. on April 1, up from 84 on March 22. As of Monday, Dix said there are now a total of 588 of the two primary variants in the province: 373 of B117 and 215 of P1.
“I think this has woken people up because people think … young people are healthy, especially if you’re an athlete. You train well, you shouldn’t have any problems,” he said.
As of Monday evening, a total of 17 Canucks players — most of the team’s active roster — were officially being kept off the ice under the league’s COVID protocols, though that does not necessarily mean all 17 have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Several sources say an unnamed player from the team’s reserve “taxi squad” is quarantining and three members of the coaching staff have tested positive.
While health officials and the NHL have refused to confirm that the team outbreak involves one of the coronavirus variants, hockey insiders at media sources including The Sports Network and The Province have said it is suspected.
One of the players affected, Jayce Hawryluk, contracted COVID-19 last year.
Let this sink in—wealthy sports franchise, NHL <a href=”https://twitter.com/Canucks?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Canucks</a>:<br><br>—Had >50% of its team <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> sickened <br><br>—Many decimated “very ill”<br><br>—Despite strict workplace protocols<br><br>—Despite big PPE budget<br><br>—Despite daily testing<br><br>➡️The <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/P1?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#P1</a> variant is just that badass.🧵<a href=”https://t.co/Ohve0bQqft”>https://t.co/Ohve0bQqft</a> <a href=”https://t.co/LzFkiRRYKp”>pic.twitter.com/LzFkiRRYKp</a>
Ever since the Atlanta spa shootings on March 16 that killed eight people, including six women of Asian descent, Angela Leong stopped walking to and from work because she was too scared to be out in public.
“Quite frankly, I’m scared and I don’t want to work anymore,” Leong said. “I’m not comfortable with walking down the streets, so I started taking Uber exclusively just to go back and forth to my office.”
Leong, a registered clinical counsellor in Vancouver, says some of her Asian Canadian clients have been echoing the same fears and have stopped visiting the office after sunset. She said since the surge in anti-Asian hate crimes in both in the United States and Canada, she’s seen an increase in patients experiencing racial trauma.
According to a report released in March by the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) Toronto chapter, there were more than 1,000 cases of both verbal and physical attacks against Asians across the country from March 2020 to February 2021. And since the start of the pandemic, Canada had more anti-Asian racism reports per capita than the United States.
In February, Vancouver police said they saw anti-Asian hate crimes jump by more than 700 per cent in 2020 as reports of incidents rose from 12 in 2019 to 98 in 2020.
Linda Lin, a registered clinical counsellor who focuses on racial identity and trauma, says she’s also seen a spike in people who are seeking mental health support.
“I noticed a tenfold increase in my caseload,” said Lin. “They are clients who are coming to talk about … past experiences of racialized verbal abuse or incidents linked with COVID-19.”
She said racial trauma can stem from feelings of being marginalized while growing up in Canada or from feeling discriminated against because of ethnicity or race.
Leong said in the past two weeks, 66 to 75 per cent of her clients were from the Asian community, whereas just eight weeks before the shooting in Atlanta, only 35 to 52 per cent of her clients were Asian.
“My patients have been telling me … there has always been aggressive behaviour as a result of their race or ethnicity,” she said.
Co-founder of the Asian Canadian Women’s Alliance and former journalist Jan Wong said the recent increase in anti-Asian hate is bringing back memories of her own experience of racism, which triggered a severe clinical depression.
In 2006, she said she received an onslaught of racist messages and attacks against her family’s Chinese restaurant after a story she published in the local paper.
“I noticed people in Quebec started … saying that we were serving cat and dog and rats and that we were dirty,” Wong told Canada Tonight host Ginella Massa.
“In fact the restaurant had to close.”
She said hearing about the frequent racist attacks against members of the Asian community is having a negative impact on her.
“I have raised cortisone levels because of this, and if you have chronically raised cortisone, you can end up in depression,” Wong said. “It makes me really angry.”
Need for education
Rage and anger are common signs of racial trauma, according to Lin, as individuals who have been victims of racial abuse and violence often feel silenced and invalidated.
“I’m hearing stories of discrimination … and people are hoping to be seen and heard and hoping to be respected,” Lin said. “I’m also noticing people trying to protest not just for their own story of racial trauma but for their parents and their community as well.”
Queenie Choo, CEO of United Chinese Community Enrichment Services Society (S.U.C.C.E.S.S.), says she’s not surprised to hear that there has been an increase in Asian Canadians seeking mental health support.
She said in January 2021, the organization received over 400 calls through its help line, which provides counselling services in Mandarin and Cantonese.
“People feel that they are in such a vulnerable situation where they could be subject to attacks, whether that’s physical, mental or emotional … and I think that is all very negative to people’s mental health,” Choo said.
What the government is doing
When asked about federal efforts to combat anti-Asian racism, the Canadian Heritage department said in an emailed statement that the government set up an anti-racism secretariat in March 2020 and is “engaging on a regular basis with pan-Asian networks of community organizations” to discuss how it can be more effective in countering anti-Asian racism.
As part of a four-year anti-racism strategy announced in 2019, it has committed $ 15 million to 85 projects to combat racism and discrimination, it said, including anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
It has also created a Centre on Diversity and Inclusion at the Treasury Board secretariat and invested in more disaggregated data, the statement said.
The statement also said the government is redoubling its efforts when it comes to:
Taking action on online hate.
Advancing economic empowerment opportunities for specific communities.
Building a whole-of-federal-government approach on better collection of disaggregated data.
Implementing an action plan to increase diverse representation in hiring, appointments and leadership development within the public service.
“There is more work to do,” the statement said. “However, our government will continue to condemn all forms of racism and take concrete steps to confront anti-Asian racism and discrimination in all its forms.”
An increasing number of younger people in British Columbia are becoming infected with COVID-19 and some are dying, just as vaccines are protecting older populations, the provincial health officer said Monday.
Dr. Bonnie Henry said younger patients who are ending up in intensive care units need more time there, in part because of clusters of cases in some communities.
“We saw that with some of the outbreaks that were happening in First Nations communities where people at a younger age were much more likely to need hospitalization or critical care. And sadly, where we’ve seen younger people die from the virus,” Henry said.
COVID-19 is spreading through crowded households and workplaces as cases rise among people between the ages of 20 and 39, and up to age 59, she said.
“With a higher number of people in that age group being affected, the probability that somebody is going to end up in hospital at a younger age goes up,” Henry said, adding some people who have been hospitalized have underlying health conditions.
Indoor gatherings, even with people having minimal contact, should be avoided as the variant first identified in the United Kingdom becomes more prevalent, transmitting COVID-19 easily as it spreads, Henry said.
“The only safe place for us to gather now in our small groups, with our friends and families, is outside,” she said of her public health order limiting gathering numbers to 10 and among people who must stick to the same group.
“I’m calling on all of us again to go back to our basics. This is not the time to be getting together even with a small group of friends. This is not the time to have that wedding. Put it off. Put it off to the summer and we will be a different place, a post-pandemic place.
“We are seeing things increasing, whether it’s the end of our second wave or the beginning of the third, it is worrisome.”
Henry said establishments hosting weddings and similar events will be held accountable for putting their employees and others at risk.
She also called on businesses to continue having safety plans in place regardless of whether owners or employees have been vaccinated.
“It takes time for that to come into effect. And it takes time when we have this much transmission in our community,” she said, adding businesses with ongoing transmission could be closed for at least 10 days.
“For all of us, don’t let up now. And if you are blatantly disregarding those public health orders, there are ramifications for that.”
Health officials have been meeting with religious leaders to finalize plans for the resumption of outdoor services with an announcement expected in the coming days, Henry said.
E. coli outbreaks used to mainly be linked to hamburgers, but the last decade has seen recall after recall of tainted romaine lettuce coming into Canada from the United States. At least seven people have died, and hundreds have been sickened or hospitalized in both countries.
Toddler Lucas Parker was one of them.
In the fall of 2018, his parents, Nathan Parker and Karla Terry of Richmond, B.C., took Lucas and his siblings to Disneyland, their first trip outside Canada. But what they couldn’t know at the time was that a few bites of romaine salad Lucas ate one night at a small California roadside restaurant would change their lives forever.
Like most people who get sick from this strain of E. coli, Lucas, then two years old, didn’t show symptoms right away. When he started feeling unwell, the family headed out for the long drive home. By the time he was in a Canadian hospital, the E. coli had shut down one of his kidneys and led to two brain injuries. There are no current treatments for E. coli that can help alleviate infections or prevent complications.
Lucas can no longer walk, talk or see.
“Lucas was just a beaming ray of light … he was a caring person … a cheeky boy, a loving brother,” said his father, Nathan Parker. “I remember him in the hospital waking up out of a coma and looking around, just lost, not talking, not walking, not moving much. Such a brain injury that his brain was so swollen that there was no comfort, there was nothing. It was just hell.”
‘Most devastatingly injured human’
Bill Marler, an American lawyer and food-safety advocate who has been fighting for food safety for almost 30 years, represents Lucas and his parents. Marler has filed suit on behalf of the family against the restaurant where they ate, as well as the farm and suppliers of the lettuce; the case is currently in the discovery phase in a court system slowed down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lucas, “is the most devastatingly injured human who has survived a food-borne illness outbreak — ever,” said Marler. “The fact that he survived at all and his parents care for him as gently and as caringly as they do is a testament to them.”
Marler says he believes cows — and a society that values convenient, bagged lettuce — are to blame.
WATCH | The full Marketplace investigation:
Canada has been hit by a number of romaine lettuce recalls. We set out to the U.S., where the majority of our leafy greens come from, to dig up why E. coli outbreaks continue to plague our food supply. We meet one B.C. family whose lives have been forever changed by a contaminated salad. 12:51
Proximity of cattle
The vast majority of the romaine eaten in North America comes from lettuce grown in areas of California such as the Salinas Valley, or Yuma, Ariz. Many of those romaine lettuce fields have cattle nearby.
“We all know where E. coli O157: H7 comes from — it comes from cows,” said Marler. “And when you have a 100,000-cow feedlot, a dirt road, a canal and then leafy greens for as far as the eyes can see … it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened.”
While the FDA hasn’t made new rules for lettuce growers, it has called on produce growers to prevent contamination by increasing buffer zones with nearby cattle, and to use other suggested strategies included in its 2020 Leafy Green STEC Action Plan, such as assessing risk to water sources and developing stronger traceability records.
John Boelts, a Yuma, Ariz.-based lettuce farmer, says food-borne illness outbreaks are not only extremely rare, but farmers like him are already doing more than what the FDA requires to keep the food supply safe.
“Farmers’ practices are remarkable these days, not just mine but everybody in my business,” Boelts said. “I think we’re doing everything humanly possible today.”
Like many lettuce farmers, Boelts does independent testing of the irrigation water surrounding his fields, and makes sure that irrigation water never touches the edible parts of his crops.
Boelts says he’s also taken steps to keep animals away, but he doesn’t believe having a cow feedlot nearby his fields is an issue.
“That feedlot has been around since the 1930s, 1940s and we’ve been producing leafy greens in this area for about that length of time,” Boelts said. “If there really was an issue we would be having an issue more frequently.”
Marler argues that convenient bagged salads have helped the spread of contaminated lettuce. One head of E. coli-contaminated lettuce can be cut, processed, mixed with other lettuce, and then cross-contaminate many different packages of bagged salads.
“The E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce and other leafy greens blew up in the last decade and a half because we wanted bagged salads,” he said. “We wanted to be able to go to the grocery store, restaurants wanted to be able to not have someone in the back chopping up lettuce, they just wanted to open a bag and dump it in your salad bowl and good to go…. It’s industrialized agriculture, convenience, and it’s killing us.”
Lawrence Goodridge, a professor of food safety at the University of Guelph in Ontario, agrees that the majority of E. coli lettuce outbreaks occur with bagged salads. He says that while E. coli outbreaks are actually quite rare, there are things that consumers should be doing, starting with avoiding prepackaged salads.
“To reduce the risk of developing a food-borne illness, consumers should purchase whole heads of lettuce and then remove the outer leaves,” Goodridge said. Consumers should also wash the inner leaves thoroughly. While buying head lettuce and washing it thoroughly won’t eliminate the risk of E. coli, Goodridge says it can help mitigate it.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says it can use a number of measures to assess if romaine lettuce imported from the United States is safe to eat for Canadians. The CFIA took steps to improve safety for Canadians last fall; importers had to show their lettuce was either free of E. coli or did not come from California’s Salinas Valley. Those measures never targeted lettuce from Yuma, Ariz., and have now since expired. The CFIA says it will reassess its rules later this year.
In Marler’s view, outbreaks will continue to happen if the source of the contamination isn’t addressed.
“These outbreaks will keep happening in Canada as well as the U.S. unless we deal with the environmental contamination caused by growing lettuce in close proximity to cattle,” he said.
Lucas Parker is now almost five years old. All his meals are liquified and ingested through a tube in his stomach.
“I ordered a salad. I thought I was doing the right thing, you know?” said Lucas’s father. “And because of a breakdown somewhere else it turned out to be the most fatal mistake in the world.”
He thinks not enough people know about the potential dangers of E. coli-contaminated romaine lettuce.
“I want people to be made aware that anything, you know, should never be taken for granted — because you could eat something that can just take your life away, take your joy away.”
Watch full episodes of Marketplace on CBC Gem, the CBC’s streaming service.
Call centres in British Columbia received a million calls in the first hour after they opened to receive COVID-19 vaccine appointments for some of the province’s oldest residents, according to the doctor in charge of the province’s rollout plan.
Dr. Penny Ballem, who is also chair of Vancouver Coastal Health, spoke on CBC’s The Early Edition just after 8 a.m. Monday morning and said while call agents were hit with a “massive onslaught” the minute the lines opened, it was not unexpected and should not worry eligible residents who have not yet secured an appointment.
“Everyone’s going to get their vaccine,” said Ballem, adding it’s a big job, but the province is prepared.
The call centres opened at 7 a.m. at the Fraser, Island, Interior, Northern and Vancouver Coastal health authorities to allow appointments for people 90 years and older and Indigenous people who are 65 and older or identify as elders.
In less than three hours after they opened, 1.7 million calls came in.
Karen Bloemink, vice-president of pandemic response with Interior Health, asks people not to phone the call centre ahead of their eligibility dates that are based on their birth years.
“Call volumes will be closely monitored and if there are some delays initially, we will be working in the background to adjust and respond quickly,” she said. “Once an individual becomes eligible to receive their vaccine, they can book their appointment at any time.”
Plenty of spots remain
Health Minister Adrian Dix says there are about 47,000 people in the province who are 90 and older and 35,000 who are Indigenous people over 65, so he urged anyone who is not calling on behalf of someone in those categories to hang up the phone.
“I very much appreciate the enthusiasm of everybody calling in. But I would ask that people allow those who are eligible this week to book appointments,” he said. “That is a massive number of phone calls. If that were to continue, obviously no phone system would respond to that.”
Dix says health authorities are booking thousands of appointments and plenty of time slots remain.
There are still five days left to book for people in those age groups, so if callers don’t get through today, he says there is still time.
“This is not first-come, first-serve,” said Dix. “There are going to be lots of opportunities.”
As of the 2016 Census, British Columbia had 42,040 people over the age of 90. <br><br>With 1.4 million calls for a vaccine appointment so far, that means there’s been 33 calls for each eligible person.
Dix says the phone lines are the focus right now because of the age of those who are eligible.
Fraser Health was the only authority to launch an online booking system on the first day. Web-based platforms across health regions will become a larger component of booking as younger age categories get their turn, Dix said.
Dix says the “enormous” response on Monday reflects the significant support for vaccination in the province.
Some residents calling on behalf of their elderly parents spent all morning trying to get through on the phone lines.
Elaine Husdon, whose father is 95, said she called the Fraser Health number when the line opened at 7 a.m., “exactly on the dot,” and received a busy signal.
She said she has been redialing constantly and can’t even get on hold — she either gets a busy signal or a recording that says there is a high call volume that instructs her to hang up and try again.
Husdon said her father lives with her family and she decided to take a leave of absence from her job at a school because of the risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home to him.
Julie Tapley, whose 90-year-old father lives in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, also said she only received a busy signal every time she has called.
She said she spent two hours between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. constantly pressing redial.
Tapley said she wishes that the health authority had set up an online booking system from the beginning, as Fraser Health did.
“I feel a bit frustrated because I know it’s very important to my dad to get (the vaccine),” she said, adding her parents have had a lonely year during the pandemic.
“I just want to get in the queue and start the process so that they can return to their normal lives,” said Tapley.
I have been calling Island Health since 7 a.m. Am calling on behalf of my 95-year-old parents. One eligible caller = many logged calls. I have to listen to a 49 second voicemail each time and then am told the line is no longer in service! An astonishingly inefficient system.
B.C.’s provincial health officer is fending off criticism of the province’s decision to delay second doses of COVID-19 vaccines, telling the public she is “so confident” in a plan she says is based on science and data.
Dr. Bonnie Henry’s comments came as she announced another 438 new cases of COVID-19 and two more deaths from the disease on Tuesday. She also revealed that problems with the province’s data-keeping system mean that 254 new cases went uncounted over the past seven days, and those cases have now been added to B.C.’s overall tally.
During a live briefing, Henry addressed comments from Canada’s chief science adviser criticizing B.C.’s decision to leave a four-month gap between first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccines. On Monday, Mona Nemer described that plan as a “population-level experiment” that does not reflect the current science.
Henry called that an “unfortunate” comment and pointed out that Nemer was not involved in the evaluation that led B.C. to make a decision tailored to its current case level.
“I am so confident that the decision we made over the past weekend to extend that interval is the best one based on the science and data that we have to maximize the benefit to everyone in B.C.,” Henry said.
She pointed out the most up-to-date data suggests a single dose of vaccine is about 90 per cent effective in preventing infection with the novel coronavirus after three weeks and that level of protection lasts for months.
Watch | Henry says restrictions could be lifted sooner if more people are vaccinated:
Dr. Bonnie Henry says science and real-world data from the next few months will reveal when people need their second booster doses. 1:07
B.C.’s plan is based on a desire to get first doses to as many people as possible within a short time frame to provide some level of protection from the disease, particularly with new cases still at a dangerous level, she said.
“We know based on real world data, we don’t have to wait for second doses to lift restrictions if we can protect enough people,” Henry said.
So far, B.C. has administered 283,182 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, including 86,537 second doses. That means about five per cent of British Columbians have now received a shot.
B.C. has seen a total of 81,367 cases of the disease to date, including 1,365 people who have died.
There are now 4,679 active cases of COVID-19 in B.C. Of those, 243 people are in hospital, including 63 in intensive care.
The number of patients in hospital is growing again, reaching its highest number since Feb. 6 on Tuesday, on the heels of a recent upward trend in the seven-day rolling average of new cases.
Henry said the province has also confirmed 22 new cases of variants of concern in the last day, bringing the total to 182 to date. Of those, 159 are the variant first identified in the U.K. and 23 are the variant first reported in South Africa. Nine of those cases have ended up in hospital.
About three quarters of the cases confirmed so far are directly related to travel or close contact with a traveller, but the source of the rest remains unknown, which suggests they are circulating in the community, Henry said.
Tuesday’s update also included two new outbreaks in the health-care system.
Vaccination by end of July for all eligible adults
On Monday, Henry announced that every eligible adult in British Columbia should be able to receive a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by late July based on the approval of a new vaccine and the decision to delay second doses.
Seniors 80 and older, Indigenous seniors 65 and older, hospital staff and medical specialists, vulnerable populations living and working in shared settings, and staff providing in-home support to seniors will begin getting their shots this month.
The province’s vaccination plan is focused on inoculating high-risk people and most elderly populations by April, followed by younger age groups in the spring and summer.
CBC British Columbia is hosting a town hall on March 10 to put your COVID-19 vaccine questions to expert guests, including Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. You can find the details at cbc.ca/ourshot. Have a question about the vaccine, or the rollout plan in B.C.? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
British Columbia is expanding its vaccine workforce, health officials said Tuesday, as the province marked 559 new cases of COVID-19 and one more death.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said at a news conference she has issued a public health order expanding the number of health professions able to administer a COVID-19 vaccine.
Dentists, paramedics, midwives, pharmacy technicians and retired nurses are now among those who can join the vaccination work force over the next six months. B.C. plans on opening 172 vaccination sites across the province as it ramps up to immunize the general population and, Henry said, will maintain its age-based immunization plan despite some calls to prioritize essential workers.
Henry said no additional deaths were recorded in long-term care homes — a reflection of the success of vaccinations in those settings.
“I think it is a moment to reflect, as we start to receive increased supplies of immunization products, that we have delivered all of the vaccines as they’ve arrived,” she said.
Henry said the province will announce plans Monday on the vaccine rollout for people above the age of 80.
WATCH | ‘We are seeing our way out of this pandemic,’ Henry says:
B.C.’s provincial health officer says we need to continue doing our part to manage the pandemic as the province gets ready to deliver vaccines to the first age group. 1:32
Communication with seniors will be through postcards, home-care services, specialty clinics and through independent living facilities, said Henry.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said that 5,628 people received vaccination shots in the past 24 hours in B.C.
A total of 1,336 people in B.C. have lost their lives due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Henry and Dix say there are 238 people currently in hospital, with 68 in intensive care.
There are 4,677 active cases of coronavirus in the province.
“We’re in a period of vaccine hope and pandemic reality,” said Henry, adding it’s “concerning” to see the percentage of positive cases and seven-day averages increasing in the Lower Mainland.
The province is also seeing coronavirus variants enter the community. B.C. is currently screening 70 per cent of positive tests for the variants.
“Since the beginning of February, when we extended orders, part of the reason to do that is because we didn’t know how many variants we were seeing,” she said.
Later Tuesday, Vancouver Coastal Health announced that an outbreak had been declared in two additional units at Vancouver General Hospital, bringing the total number of affected units to three.
The number of new cases reported daily in B.C. has also been on an upward trend in recent weeks, to the point where the number of active cases and the seven-day rolling average of new cases are at their highest in a month.
As of Tuesday, seven per cent of tests for the novel coronavirus are now coming back positive across the province, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s COVID-19 dashboard. In the Northern Health region, more than 13 per cent of tests are now positive.
On Monday, Deputy Provincial Health Officer Dr. Reka Gustafson and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside addressed the discovery of the faster-spreading variant first reported in the U.K. in cases at seven schools in Surrey and Delta. They said at a news conference there was no evidence so far that the variants were transmitted within those schools. As of Monday, there were 101 confirmed cases of variants in B.C.
CBC British Columbia is hosting a town hall on March 10 to answer your COVID-19 vaccine questions.
You can find the details at cbc.ca/ourshot, as well as opportunities to participate in two community conversations on March 3, focused on outreach to Indigenous and multicultural communities.
Have a question about the vaccine, or the rollout plan in B.C.? Email us: email@example.com
Kim will never forget the moment the specialist touched her arm and believed her.
She had been living with excruciating pain for more than half her life, yet, she says, a long list of doctors had either misdiagnosed or dismissed her condition.
It was only when she was treated at a special unit of B.C. Women’s Hospital in 2017 that she felt understood.
“For the first time someone from the medical community was telling me: ‘Not only do I believe you but I also have successfully treated other patients. Let’s give it a try and if it doesn’t work, I will not abandon you,'” she said.
Kim, 34, has endometriosis, a condition that is still widely unknown even though it affects one in 10 women around the world and more than a million in Canada, according to advocacy group EndoAct.
Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus implants in the pelvic cavity outside the uterus to form lesions, cysts and other growths, according to Endometriosis Network Canada. This can cause pain, internal scarring, infertility and other medical complications.
Each case is different. There is no cure. Those who have it need to learn to live with it. The pain may briefly lessen, but it is only a matter of time before it comes back with a vengeance.
‘There are a lot of unanswered questions’
Kim — CBC is not using her real name — agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity, because she tries to hide her condition whenever possible. She feels like her condition already takes up too much space in her life.
”It feels like someone is stabbing you in your vagina with a knife, while there is another knife moving through your uterus and ovaries,” Kim said, adding the pain then moves to her hips and can extend all the way down to her ankles, preventing her from walking.
WATCH | Journalist and poet Danielle d’Entremont describes the pain of endometriosis:
Ever wonder what endometriosis can feel like? Watch this video by journalist and poet Danielle d’Entremont. 1:59
Much about the condition is still unknown.
“It is complex because there are a lot of unanswered questions. We do not completely understand how endometriosis starts,” said Dr. Catherine Allaire, medical director of the Centre for Pelvic Pain and Endometriosis at B.C. Women’s Hospital in Vancouver, where Kim was diagnosed after many years of searching.
Allaire’s centre is one of the few in Canada that takes an interdisciplinary approach to the condition. Patients here can see not only a surgeon but a fertility specialist, a nurse and physiotherapist to help deal with chronic pain, and a psychologist to address mental health, among others.
The waiting list for treatment is about six months once a patient gets a referral. But getting that referral can take a much longer time, such are the misconceptions around endometriosis. Kim says it took her seven years.
More support, funding and research is needed into the condition and those who suffer from it, experts and advocates say.
In the past 20 years, only $ 7 million has been spent on research into endometriosis in Canada, Allaire said. Diabetes, another chronic disease, received 150 times more in public money.
She says that’s because endometriosis doesn’t kill — and because it doesn’t affect men. With a bitter laugh, Allaire said she’s pretty sure a cure would have been found 50 years ago if endometriosis affected men.
Pushing for a plan
EndoAct is now bringing together people living with endometriosis and professionals in the medical community in order to get governments to move forward on support and research.
“There’s a need to advance our understanding about basically everything,” says Kate Wahl, the volunteer executive director of EndoAct Canada and a PhD student at the University of British Columbia.
“You’ve got the cause of the condition, non-invasive methods for diagnosis, personalized treatment, patient-centred care … so many things that would benefit from further investigation.”
EndoAct’s ultimate goal is to have a national action plan like the one that exists in Australia — a three-pillar strategy that focuses on increased education, improved clinical management and care, and research.
Asked if a national action plan for endometriosis was in the works in Canada, a Ministry of Health spokesperson replied that the federal government is funding nine research projects on the condition to further understanding, diagnosis and treatment.
”Women’s health is a top priority, and we are committed to improving health care for women, girls, and transgender individuals,” the spokesperson said.
‘They don’t believe you. They don’t listen to you’
In Kim’s Vancouver apartment, painkillers are strategically placed by the entrance, in the living room, in the bathroom and on her bedside table. She needs to access them quickly when a bout of crippling pain occurs.
Her couch is close to the heating pad, towels and castor oil she uses to wrap herself in to calm the pain. She makes sure her fridge and freezer are stocked with a week’s worth of food, just in case.
“When I leave my house I can forget my cellphone — but my medication? No. I never leave my house without my painkillers,” she said.
Kim says the first three times she had her period, when she was 13, she ended up in hospital from pain so severe it caused her to vomit and faint.
Yet for years she thought the pain related to her period was normal. She says she saw doctor after doctor who told her so. They never mentioned endometriosis.
“They don’t believe you. They don’t listen to you. They don’t do followups. They do not take you seriously,” she said.
She tried several treatments, from birth-control pills and hormones to ever-stronger painkillers. She says one gynecologist even advised her to have a baby, as that could reduce the pain.
“Really? What do I do with the baby after?” she recalls asking him.
Kim found some comfort in support groups for people with endometriosis. She says she noticed a common theme when she was meeting with her “endo sisters”: they were all, at some point, not believed.
She thinks her condition would have been easier psychologically had she not had to fight against a health-care system that didn’t appear to recognize her condition. Falling into deep depression, she even started to doubt herself.
So when a diagnosis of endometriosis was confirmed after she opted to have surgery at B.C. Women’s Hospital, she was tremendously relieved.
“To have that diagnosis, like a paper confirming something that nobody sees, that changed a lot for me,” she said.
“I have my certificate. I am not crazy.”
‘Periods should never prevent you from functioning’
The centre for pelvic pain and endometriosis is now trying to catch cases of endometriosis early, so that girls who have abnormal period pain can consult a doctor to get help and, hopefully, avoid the downward spiral that leads toward chronic pain.
A pilot project in a New Westminster, B.C., school — currently on hold because of the pandemic — is teaching students about endometriosis, while a social media campaign is scheduled to be launched this spring to teach girls about what constitutes a normal period.
“What I usually say is that periods should never prevent you from functioning,” Allaire said.
“You may have to take an analgesic like ibuprofen, but then you should be able to go to school and do your activities. You should not have to plan your life around your period. When it interferes with your life and you have to miss school and work when you have your cycle, that is not normal.”
Allaire has met many young women whose lives are completely dictated by endometriosis. They had to miss classes and their grades suffered; they couldn’t choose the career they wanted. Some had pain during sex, others had fertility problems, others had chronic pain.
Around 60 per cent of the patients at the Vancouver clinic suffer from depression and anxiety, Allaire said.
The centre has been able to help about four out of every five of its patients, she said.
“They do better, have less anxiety and depression. The symptoms are better. They are still there, but the women have a better quality of life.”
For many, however, the only hope for respite from the pain comes from menopause — as the majority of women with endometriosis are shown to experience fewer symptoms afterward.
The surgery Kim underwent to diagnose her condition also attempted to alleviate her pain by removing some endometrial tissue. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. In fact, she says, it made it worse, causing her to fall into the deepest depression of her life.
But still, she says, she doesn’t regret the surgery because she needed the validation of the diagnosis.
Now, a few years later, she has learned to live with the pain. Part of that involves a healthy work-life balance, with regular sleep — pain permitting.
Her story is far from unique. But Allaire is determined to make sure more people don’t suffer like Kim has.
”Those life experiences are not acceptable. We need to do something to change that,” Allaire said.
The current orders restricting daily life and socialization in B.C. are going to stay in place indefinitely, the province announced Friday.
The orders had been set to expire at midnight. In announcing the extension, officials said B.C has made “encouraging” progress in reducing the spread of COVID-19, but the situation isn’t stable enough to allow people to start getting together again.
“Right now, we need to stay the path,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. “We need to protect the progress we have made and not squander our progress.”
The orders state that, with a few small exceptions, social gatherings must be restricted to the members of your immediate household. All events are banned, along with in-person religious services, and masks must be worn in indoor public spaces.
Henry said there’s a chance things might change by March, but there is no official expiry date on the extended orders.
“By the end of the month, once again, we can look to having our ‘safe six’ — our bubble — again,” she said.
“I will be continuously reviewing the data that we have to see if we can do it earlier,” she continued. “But I want people to start thinking: It’s not going to be, ‘Yay, we’re out of this, we’re back to normal.’ It’s going to be, ‘Can we slowly and thoughtfully find an increase in those social connections that we all really want?’ “
B.C. has been living under the restrictions for nearly three months, going through the dark winter with a ban on social gathering with people who don’t live in the same household.
WATCH | Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why B.C. restrictions don’t have an expiry date:
Dr. Bonnie Henry says B.C.’s current restrictions on gatherings, which have been extended indefinitely, could begin to tighten even more if the number of new coronavirus variants starts to spread. 1:51
B.C. needs to buy time: Henry
The latest round of modelling was also released Friday morning. It shows the rate of infection in B.C. has been moving slightly downward in recent weeks, with roughly 400 to 500 new cases every day, but the rate isn’t declining as quickly as officials would like.
Data released Friday shows the COVID-19 reproductive number is stubbornly hovering around one in every health authority — meaning each case is still leading to at least one new case.
Henry said the situation in B.C. could take a serious turn for the worse if social interactions increase too quickly, or if new and more-transmissible variants begin spreading.
“We are on a good trajectory, but it could change very quickly,” said Henry.
“If we start to see one of these variants take off, then all bets are off and we may actually increase some of the restrictions we have in place. I don’t want to go there.”
She said continuing with current restrictions will buy time to flatten the curve, continue vaccinating the public and learn more about variants of concern. She said keeping case counts low will also ensure the health-care system has room to respond if variants take off.
Few variant cases, but concern remains
B.C. has sequenced 4,500 positive cases since Dec. 1 to check for variants of the coronavirus first detected internationally. Variants first detected in South Africa and the U.K. were found in 28 of those samples.
Fourteen cases of the variant first found in the U.K. were identified in people who’d travelled internationally and their close contacts. In five cases of the South African variant, officials don’t know where the person caught the virus.
Based on those results, the province said variants are considered contained in B.C.
But data on the variant found in the U.K., for example, suggests it is 50 per cent more transmissible from person to person than the common strain of the coronavirus. If it spreads, it could dramatically increase the growth rate of the pandemic curve in B.C.
Friday’s modelling showed Fraser Health and Interior Health regions had the lowest reproduction rate as of Tuesday, but only by a fraction. The Island Health region was the highest, sitting at just above one.
The data said children have had a low infection rate since returning to school on Sept. 7. Children under the age of 18 accounted for 12.5 per cent of all cases in the province.
There was a slight uptick in community transmission after the winter holidays, Henry said, due to gatherings that happened over the break. Data showed transmission actually dropped after students returned to school in January.
Both Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix urged residents during their last news conference not to make any plans outside their household for Super Bowl Sunday.
The province reported 465 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total number of active cases to 4,447. The number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 — 257 — was at its lowest level since Nov. 21.
Masks are now mandatory for students and staff inside high schools and middle schools in British Columbia.
Non-medical grade masks must be worn in all indoor areas, the province announced Thursday, including while students are in their learning cohorts.
A statement from the B.C. Ministry of Education said masks can come off while students are at their workstation in the classroom, while they’re eating and drinking, or while a barrier — like a sheet of Plexiglas — is in place.
Wearing masks indoors is still optional for elementary students. Staff in elementary schools, however, are now also required to wear a mask.
$ 900K for rapid response teams
The province also announced the creation of six regional rapid response teams — one in each health authority — to support independent schools.
The teams, created with $ 900,000 in funding, “will continue to improve the speed of school exposure investigations so health authorities can inform school districts and families more quickly.”
The teams will conduct physical and virtual inspections to ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed consistently in K-12 schools.
If there is a serious exposure or in-school transmission, the teams will be sent out to conduct a review and make recommendations to prevent the situation from happening again.
Results released Wednesday of a survey commissioned by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation suggested more than half of teachers felt unsafe in the classroom during the pandemic and the vast majority wanted to see masks become mandatory.
The push increased this week after news of possible exposure to a new coronavirus variant at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge, B.C.
Officials confirmed Wednesday someone at the school was infected with a more transmissible form of the virus, but has since recovered. A total of 81 students and eight staff members who are in that person’s cohort were all tested to see if the virus had spread, and all of them tested negative.