Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver.
At the daily briefings hosted by provincial health officers in Alberta and British Columbia, the caution and calm in their voices is underpinned by a sense they are girding for the battle that is to come.
Indeed, that’s evident in British Columbia’s move last week to cancel all elective surgeries in an effort to free up bed space for the flood of COVID-19 patients who are expected. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday the move has meant an extra 3,632 beds in British Columbia. Whereas before the COVID-19 crisis, B.C.'s bed capacity was running at about 103 per cent, the elimination of elective surgeries means capacity as of yesterday stands at 68.6 per cent. For critical-care beds specifically, the province has freed up almost half of them: capacity now stands at 55.7 per cent, with the rest available for when the onslaught comes, if it does.
No one wants a nightmare scenario such as the one playing out in Italy and provinces are doing whatever they can to avoid it.
But given the unprecedented nature of the virus, the pace at which it’s spreading, health officials and the public are learning that what was considered an acceptable risk just weeks ago – a quick trip across the border to Washington, a dinner out at a restaurant with friends – can be considered, in hindsight, to be recklessness.
The thought of 14,000 dentists gathering for a conference March 5 to 7 didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time. The B.C. Dental Association maintained last week that it had worked with the Provincial Health Services Authority in late February to mitigate the risks of the conference.
But on Tuesday, a former patient and friend of Dr. Denis Vincent posted that Dr. Vincent, in his 60s, had died and that his death was suspected to be linked to COVID-19, acquired after attending the conference.
Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Tuesday in her daily media briefing that she could not confirm whether Dr. Vincent’s death was related to COVID-19, saying an investigation by the B.C. coroners service will determine that.
“I do know they attended the conference and they were known to public health and an investigation had been done,” she said.
But Dr. Henry noted the conference is a “major source” of some of the infections in British Columbia, with up to 32 people with the virus who can be linked directly or indirectly to the gathering.
In previous briefings, at least seven of Alberta’s positive cases and three in Saskatchewan were linked to the dental conference.
Likewise, a curling bonspiel in Edmonton from March 11 to 14 attended by dozens of doctors has had consequences.
Alberta’s chief medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said on Tuesday that there were 47 health-care workers from Alberta, including doctors, at the curling event and 12 of them had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday.
Dr. Hinshaw said all of those workers’ close friends, coworkers and relatives were being contacted. They included three doctors from Red Deer, where 58 patients and 97 other health-care workers are being contacted about potential exposure. There were also doctors from the Calgary and Edmonton regions who were infected.
Tom Koch, an adjunct professor at the geography department of the University of British Columbia with an expertise in the factors that promote or inhibit the spread of disease, said the understanding about the spread of COVID-19 is developing quickly. The events from earlier this month represent a long time ago in our understanding of the virus.
“This virus has fooled us every step of the way. We’ve made assumptions, based on our knowledge of other coronaviruses and we’ve been wrong. So the early estimations of what a “safe gathering” might be, in size, has shrunk as we learned," he said.
Later this week, the B.C. government has pledged to release its modelling for how officials think the virus will hit British Columbia. The cases have continued to grow – on Tuesday, the latest tally was 670 cases with 67 new ones counted on Monday and 78 tallied up until the time of the briefing Tuesday. But the health minister has cautioned the province and the country are not seeing the worst of it yet. The effects of the social-distancing measures put in place over the past week won’t have an impact for another two weeks.
By then, it is hoped, British Columbians will be able to be grateful for the extra hospital beds without having to need them all.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.
ALBERTA ESSENTIAL WORKERS: Ontario and Quebec shuttered all non-essential businesses Monday in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Essential workplaces in those provinces include supermarkets, gas stations, pharmacies, takeout and delivery restaurants, hotels, and hardware, liquor, beer and cannabis stores. An Alberta government source, not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said this province will soon take similar action. The source said the list is currently being developed by a cross-ministry team with officials from health, labour, energy and municipal affairs under the guidance of the Provincial Operations Centre. And it will include oil-sand workers.
B.C. AID PACKAGE: British Columbia will spend $5-billion in the coming months to provide financial assistance to individuals and businesses in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering cash to workers who lose their jobs, additional funds for essential services and tax relief for companies trying to stay afloat. The pandemic-response funds were rolled into an extraordinary, $44.5-billion fiscal package designed to keep the provincial government running for the next nine months without bringing the legislature back to pass the February budget. The province is offering $1.1-billion in income supports and $1.7-billion to expand critical services including health, housing and social assistance. Another $2.2-billion will provide relief to businesses, and B.C. will launch an economic recovery plan after the outbreak.
ALBERTA COVID-19 TESTING: Alberta has decided to focus its tests for COVID-19 on residents of the province deemed most at risk, and is urging people with mild symptoms to self-isolate at home and stay away from others. Dr. Hinshaw said previous testing commitments will be honoured, but there will be a new focus on symptomatic people with respiratory illness, residents of continuing care and other such facilities, and people returning from travels abroad between March 8 and 12 before self-isolation protocols were in place.
ALBERTA LONG-TERM-CARE FACILITY DEATH: A woman in her 80s who was living at a long-term care home in Calgary has died after testing positive with COVID-19, with two other residents and a staff member also contracting the disease and 11 other residents showing symptoms.
SAFE OPIOID SUPPLY DURING THE PANDEMIC: The federal government has cleared the way for British Columbia to ensure those dependent on opioids have a safe supply of the drug, a way to ensure the province’s hospitals aren’t overwhelmed with victims of two health crises seizing the province at the same time: the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. But Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he’s alarmed that the provincial government still hasn’t come up with a plan for how to distribute the opioids
STATES OF EMERGENCY: Across Canada, cities are enacting states of emergency and acting swiftly to clamp down on activities that mayors and councils believe are violating the spirit of public-health officials’ warnings. In the absence of orders from provincial health officers – who instead have been using moral suasion to get people to stay home before resorting to direct order – cities have given themselves specific powers to act on their own. The Canadian cities and mayors who have charged ahead with emergency declarations often say they think that they’re aware of and can respond to local conditions more quickly than provincial bureaucrats, who are dealing with crises on multiple broad fronts.
ENERGY-SECTOR CUTS: A multibillion-dollar government-aid package for Canada’s energy industry could be at least week away from being finalized as federal officials deal first with financial supports for people across the country to contain the economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. A report released on Monday by TD Securities Inc. pegged spending cuts by energy companies in North America at US$20-billion as they struggle to stay afloat, and more reductions are on the way. Of the total, Canadian companies have slashed spending by more than US$3-billion.
B.C. SUMMER FESTIVALS: Bard on the Beach, Vancouver’s annual Shakespeare festival, will hold off until early April to announce a decision about this year’s festival. Cancelling the season would be devastating to the organization, which relies on earned revenues such as ticket and concession sales for 70 per cent of its funding. Less than 4 per cent of its funding comes from government. The festival employs more than 200 people and is responsible for almost $4-million of local wages.
KENNEY SCOLDS HOARDERS: “The poorest amongst us are being hurt by people who are unnecessarily hoarding,” Mr. Kenney told a news conference Monday. “To those who are trying to exploit seniors and others during this time of a public health emergency, there must be a special place in hell for people like that. Just stop it. It is completely un-Canadian. It is un-Albertan. It is unacceptable.”
Want more coronavirus news sent straight to your inbox? Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.
The Globe and Mail’s Editorial Board on the COVID-19 pandemic: “It’s a generational call to national duty; a request to do our part in the war on the coronavirus. All Canadians not living in a cave know by now that social distancing and self-isolation are the most urgent actions that we can take at this point in the outbreak.”
André Picard on ramping up COVID-19 testing: ”As public demands escalate for governments to do more to combat the ever-worsening novel coronavirus pandemic, two distinct camps seem to be forming: one calling for a lockdown of the country, the other demanding a massive expansion of testing. But this is not an either/or situation. We have to do both, and sooner rather than later. We also have to recognize the limitations of each approach.”
Kevin Krausert on the future of Canada’s energy sector: “The COVID-19 crisis will eventually end, but Canada has to make some smart and strategic choices in the coming days about how to build a cleaner and more resilient energy industry that can lead the world to a lower-carbon future. There is a real opportunity to use our current crisis to pivot to a new energy future all Canadians can support. Canada’s energy industry is part of the solution to the global climate crisis. We are developing Canadian technologies and processes that dramatically reduce carbon emissions and provide the world with cleaner sources of energy. Now is the time for all levels of government to put aside their past differences and implement real solutions.”