Jordan: British Columbia and Ontario were the two provinces hit first by COVID-19. They recorded their first cases just a day apart back at the end of January. And BC, in fact, was the first place that evidence was found of the virus spreading in the community. That was March 5th. It looked like BC might have just as much trouble as Ontario at that point, but it hasn’t. Since then, British Columbia has been a model of how to control a pandemic. And in the past couple of weeks, the province seems to have successfully flatten the curve. And in the process, it has made a star out of its provincial health officer. As of Monday, British Columbia had less than 2000 cases of COVID-19. For comparison, Ontario had more than 14,000 and Quebec was closing in on 25,000. Yes, the central Canadian provinces are two and three times the size of BC, but those numbers are much lower than the population would suggest. So what happened in British Columbia that didn’t happen in Ontario and Quebec? What can other provinces learn from BC’s approach? How much of this was preparation? How much was response? How much was luck? And will it stay that way? Is the curve flat for good in BC? Or is a new spike bending it back up right now? We’ll ask somebody who’s been covering the provincial government and the public health response every day during this crisis, as soon as Claire takes us around the whole country for everything you need to know about this virus today.
Claire: Worldwide the number of COVID-19 cases has now topped 3 million. The head of the World Health Organization says, although some places are starting to ease restrictions, the pandemic is far from over and they’re still a lot of work to be done. The organization is mainly concerned about trends in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and some Asian countries. Here at home, Quebec and Ontario have both released plans for easing restrictions around COVID-19. In Quebec, elementary schools and daycares will start reopening mid-May, while high schools, colleges and universities will not reopen until late August. In Ontario, a three stage process was announced. That will start with reopening select workplaces and allowing small gatherings. Stage two will involve opening more workplaces and outdoor spaces and allow some larger gatherings. And the final stage would be to open all workplaces and allow pretty much all public gatherings. Now each of these stages will last between two to four weeks, and it’s not known yet when this will all start. That all depends on when the province sees a steady decrease in the number of cases. Prince Edward Island is expected to release a plan as well this week. On Monday, the province had reported no new cases for 12 straight days. As of Monday evening, 48,500 cases of COVID-19 in Canada with 2,817 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Liza Yuzda is the legislative reporter for NEWS1130 which is a Vancouver radio station, but she is based in Victoria, BC at the legislature. Hi, Liza.
Liza: Hi. I’m not at the legislature right now, working out of my living room and my bedroom.
Jordan: Yes, well, these are the times.
Liza: There’s windows here. There isn’t windows at the legislature where I work, so that’s a big upside for me.
Jordan: Well, why don’t you first, for those of us outside the province, can you explain how BC is doing and where the experts think you guys are in terms of flattening the curve? All we hear about BC outside of the province is praise right now.
Liza: Well, I think BC has had a few things that have made. Life a little better for us though, we’ve still had a hundred people die, and I think, you know, any amount of death is not. Is not ideal. So, we started early. I think there was a few things that that helped us out. People seem to have bought into the restrictions that we’ve had here. We started early because we had our case, first case early. We also had Washington state to our South, King County there in the Seattle area was really hard hit at a care home. So those numbers skyrocketed quickly, which I think raised the alarm. And we have the benefit of having a provincial health officer who has been on the front lines of situations like this before, Dr Bonnie Henry was part of the SARS response in Toronto. She worked for the WHO she was in the front lines of battling ebola in Africa. So she has a lot of experience, which I think has held this province in a very solid position in the way that she’s approached this. But there was also some things that aided BC that you would just put down to luck. We had a later spring break plan for students here, which allowed our province to learn from the tragedies of other provinces and other places where the spring breaks were earlier. So travellers went abroad and brought COVID-19 home before we knew, you know what a disaster it was going to become.
Liza: So our curve here has eased. Our peak was at the end of March. There was a one day that we had on the weekend there, the 28th of March, 92 cases, and then a couple of days later, 70 cases, and then we’ve slowly been coming down from there. It was in like the 30s, the forties, now we’re, we’re generally running around in the 20s, until five days ago there was outbreak at– there’s a few different ones that happened– a poultry plant and then a second poultry plant. A federal penitentiary, which we already knew there was a number of cases, but there was a lot more in the last few days, cause they started testing everyone there. And also there is a work project in Kearl Lake Alberta, which is in Northern Alberta, and people from there work there and they live in British Columbia. And so there’s been almost a dozen cases that have resulted out of workers coming back from there. So while BC has flattened the curve and there’s a lot of great work that’s been done here, I think that we are an excellent case in point that even when numbers are coming down, we are not out of the woods. These community transfer cases are happening and they can be devastating.
Jordan: Do we know yet whether or not those sort of outbreaks that you just mentioned are under control there and they won’t break out further in the community? Or this is an example of perhaps community transmission coming back up, which could bring the curve back up?
Liza: Well, I mean, it has brought our curve back up. On Saturday we had 95 new cases. 95. 40 new cases that we heard about on Saturday were from the Mission penitentiary. And there was problems with the penitentiary not telling BC health officers when inmates were being released. And in BC, until recently, we had taken the approach of testing according to need. So if you thought you had COVID, but you were healthy, and at home, you called 811 which is our local health line. And then there was a COVID-19 line after that, and you would isolate. And then you would call if things got worse. If they found a case, they do contact tracing. And so that has allowed us to do very well. But if you don’t know where someone is, you can’t do the contact tracing. So this is a cyclical way of me getting back to you saying, do you think that these are going to get worse? Well, the numbers have gone up substantially at Mission Penitentiary. And that is because health officials have started testing everyone. And so they found a bunch of new cases. And a couple of days ago when our provincial health officer was talking about the outbreaks at the poultry plant, we had one that there was initially 28 cases. That’s now up to 35. There was another one that’s a sister company that I think that will be a lot of discussions about how they dealt with their employees as well, and I think this will happen in other places and other meat plants that we’ve seen this happen, they started at two cases, they’re now at 18 and so are. Provincial health officer, I think like a lot of them talks in two weeks spans because of the time it takes to incubate. So she said a few days ago, she fully expects there to be more cases from those. I think through contact tracing, so you know, they take one person, they go everybody around them, and then anybody, you know, and they keep going down the line until they halt that. So I think they think in these cases they can work their way to the end and isolate the people who have been in contact with these people who may be at risk of developing COVID-19 and developing the symptoms. But they certainly know there are going to be new cases, cause we’re at the very beginning of the two week span of these new cases.
Jordan: Before we get into a little bit more about the details in terms of how BC has handled this, tell me more about Dr. Henry. Cause again, she’s become a real star out of this and her face is on T-shirts and et cetera, et cetera. What are her briefings like, what makes her unique? You mentioned her experience a little bit.
Liza: I don’t know. You know, I’ve watched other health officers, I watched Dr Theresa Tam, the federal health officer a lot. Their approaches seem very similar to me. They are both calm, quiet-spoken, scientifically based, you know, methodical. They’re very methodical in their approach. And they’re very calm. Dr Bonnie Henry, I think was one of the first people, health officers, that was in front of this because BC had the first case. BC had the first death. So I think her face has been out there. I think the way the province and the premier John Horgan have decided to handle it here is by having Dr Bonnie Henry as the person giving the information. We have not had our premier, like some other premiers have done, being in front of graphs and charts and showing how things are going, that has been left to health. Sometimes our health minister, Adrian Dix will be there. But primarily it’s Dr Bonnie Henry. My perspective, what I think has aided in her having, you know, the hearts of people, having her earned our many hearts across this province. I remember listening to her speak on March 7th, which is a long time ago. We knew there were cases, we knew things were shifting a bit, and it was a Saturday morning and she spoke to the province about where we were at and she broke down.
News Clip: At this time I’m asking people to consider having virtual gatherings to consider not coming together, particularly if you have people in your gathering who are elderly, who are more– excuse me. Who are more susceptible to having severe illness from this disease. And if you are going to get together, let’s look at refraining from our usual greetings.
Liza: She gets the bawl. But she broke down, her voice broke, there was tears in her eyes. And she wasn’t even giving any terrible news at that point, but it was very clear that she was saying our world was changing. And I remember listening at home to her, and I was so shaken because I thought she has been on the front lines of SARS. She has been on the front lines of Ebola. If this is bringing her to an emotional place, we’ve got a very bumpy road ahead of us. And indeed it was the next day that the first person died. We learned about it the day after, so I’m presuming she knew things were getting bad. And it was that week, it was days after, that restrictions, the world started shutting down around us. You know, the restrictions started building very quickly from there. And she was very calm in the way of approaching this, which I think has gained her respect. Many people were clamouring saying, there are lockdowns. We’re seeing lockdowns in other places. Why aren’t we locking down? And she said, the suggestions that are being made here are the orders that are being made here, are exactly the same as what are being done, some are more stringent, that are being done in places that call it a lockdown. She seems to be a much more honey than vinegar approach. You know, catching flies with this. And so I think that has gained her some respect. She has said all the way along, you need to get outside, you need to go for runs, you need to be healthy. And of course there is her key statement, which I hold to my heart when I’m feeling like I’m losing it.
News Clip: Let’s all be kind, be calm, and stay safe.
Liza: Be kind, be calm, be safe. And she also talks about when you see other people outside and people are saying, I’m seeing groups, I’m seeing too many people. And she says, you know, you don’t know someone else’s situation. So I think she has been very calm throughout this. Also, one of her approaches to modelling. BC was the first province to show the modelling that we were looking at as running different scenarios, of the what ifs of, you know, if this happened, how many spaces do we need to need in hospitals? If this many be people become ill, you know, how many ventilators will we need? And so she was very clear laying that out, but she was also very clear and took a different approach from other provinces in that she did not, and will not, look at potential deaths. She says there’s no benefit in that. She needs to look at potential illnesses and what kind of hospital space there is needed to save lives, if at all possible.
Jordan: That’s really interesting because so much of the bare bones of that are the things that were done in other provinces, but the way you’ve described her communicating that is very different, and I’m not trying to a hate on other health officers, but it just a very different method of communication. What other factors make BC different from the rest of the province, as you mentioned, the later spring break? I wonder, just based on my knowledge of BC, how much of it is also geography? BC is very spread out.
Liza: I think, cause geography also worked against us, you have to remember, because we are, you know, people go down to Seattle and Bellingham like every day. And you know, I know even I had friends who went down the weekend of the 12th, 13th when things were exploding in Bellingham. I know my mom lived down there and I wanted to get her up here, not in Bellingham, sorry, in King County, around Seattle. And I have friends who went down there. So there was a lot of people going back and forth from Canada to the States and back again. So that worked against us. But Dr. Henry has been very clear and our health minister, that one of the things that we really benefited from, and learning from provinces like Ontario and Quebec, was our later spring break. Our family in particular, we were supposed to be going to Costa Rica. I was having a heart attack. I wanted to cancel it, but they hadn’t, you know, we had to wait, think nobody would cancel anything until it was a federal edict, essentially saying no travel outside, or provincial edict, saying no travel outside Canada. But there was a very difficult decision to be made here of do we tell people don’t go on holidays, and ultimately they did. But our holidays were starting when yours were ending, yours being Ontario and also neighbouring Quebec. Part of that decision was made, it was early in that week of March 11th, 12th thereabouts, which are the 72 hours that Dr. Henry said everything changed. And that was right after it was called a pandemic, and there was a lot of information coming in, and Ontario and Quebec were seeing people come back from France, from other places, from Europe, see, and we don’t have the proximity to that. And we’d closed off a lot of travel from China. So you guys were getting a lot of– the East side of Canada was getting a lot of the cases from Europe and from New York for goodness sake. They blew up from Florida you guys go to, we don’t. So we really benefited from not having an explosion because of cases being imported. But that spring break by all accounts has made a world of difference. And BC having the opportunity to learn from other provinces in Canada that were hit very hard by cases being imported back after, you know, people’s holidays.
Jordan: Hopefully the recent spike that we talked about is just kind of a blip, and if that’s what it proves to be and it comes back under control, have you guys been having calls to reopen? Is there that kind of push behind it? Again, this is something I mentioned, we’ve seen it in Ontario this weekend with some small protests. What’s the sentiment out there and how far away do you have the sense the province is from presenting a plan and moving it that way?
Liza: There has been some sentiment. I wouldn’t say that it’s strong. I would say that the way you characterized it as pockets would be what we’ve seen. There are people who, you know, you hear more of it sort of South of the border than here, but you do hear it, hear people saying, Oh, you know, there’s so few people being affected. Let’s just open up. I don’t think that’s going to happen. The last we heard was mid April when they were extending the border closure and a few other things. Dr Bonnie Henry said that we will take it in two week increments. So mid-May, we’re expecting to hear more. And her reasoning behind that was two more cycle incubation cycles. Some questions were asked on Saturday when we saw this 95 number, and remember 40 of those are from the Mission Penitentiary and our inmates within that penitentiary, the rest are bumps up in numbers from other outbreaks at these plants. So they’re outbreaks that they have control over. People, you know, she said the best case scenario would be having zero new infections, but we don’t need that. What we need to see, we being her and health officials, is cases consistently going down, new cases going down, enough testing to be able to contact trace and close those circles and enough people doing that work. And then I think, you know, it’s just knowing that they’re going to have the ability to act quickly if there is community transfer, to close that circle and isolate those people.
Jordan: And is that basically what you’ll be looking for from the province and from Dr. Henry this week, is to see if those new numbers come under control before we move to the next steps?
Liza: Well, yeah, we need to see the numbers come down. But she said that the numbers coming down, cause we’ve seen these spikes, is not necessarily the only criteria. We need to know that there is enough testing, enough tracing for us to be able to move forward. And she’s been very clear that she’s asking businesses here, you need to think about how you can function, with this virus still swirling, to keep your customers safe and your employees safe. And I’ve talked to a guy, 73-year-old guy here who has a shoe store who said, you know, I thought I’d be selling, it’s a very successful shoe store store and he’s been in business for 50 years. He said, I thought I’d be selling, but now I’m looking at a new way of doing business. So he’s taking people one at a time in his store by appointment. He stays behind the desk. You know, lets them in. They locked the door. And so I think that we’re going to see a lot of those kind of creative ways of doing business. And you know, she is certainly clear that she wants, you know, we know the economy needs to run. We know that people need to try and function, you know, with the other people in their lives, but it’s not going to go back to normal. I think we’re going to be living at a six feet distance, you know, for a long time.
Jordan: Well, I’m glad that you guys are doing well out there. And stay safe and thanks for sharing some wisdom with us.
Liza: Awesome, thanks so much.
Jordan: Liza Yuzda is the legislative reporter for NEWS1130 in Victoria, BC. That was The Big Story. If you’d like more, they’re on the website thebigstorypodcast.ca. And we’re on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. We are also of course in your favourite podcast player, and if your favourite podcast player happens to do ratings and reviews, we would very much appreciate your feedback. We will read it even if it’s bad. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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