Thanks to our residents, health-care teams and leaders, the number of COVID-19 cases is currently very low in BC. While there is much talk about our recovery and restarting, these terms can be misleading.
The pandemic is far from over. While community transmission in BC seems to have dropped to its lowest levels since the beginning of the pandemic, nothing has fundamentally changed in terms of our shared risks. We still have a deadly virus circulating globally, we have almost no natural immunity, we have no vaccine, and we have no effective treatment.
Many other jurisdictions in Canada and abroad, even some of those now reopening, are still struggling with significant spread of this virus. Others are already having a second surge after opening too fast. Unfortunately, because we are all so connected by commerce and travel, this puts us all at risk.
There has never been a recorded pandemic without a major second wave; we just don’t know when it’s going to come. Many are predicting it will be in the fall, but there is no guarantee of that. Precaution will be our new normal until there is a widely available vaccine, an effective treatment, or the majority of us get sick and recover.
Many have asked, “if our public health restrictions were working and we are still vulnerable, then why are we changing tactics now?” The answer is that there are risks to staying shut and risks to opening up. As we move into this next phase of the pandemic, the hope is that we can find a new balance between harms of COVID-19 and harms related to restrictions and closures.
While restrictions and closures were critically important at the start of the pandemic to prevent an overwhelming surge of cases, these measures did come at a cost. In addition to the financial stress of these measures, there have been negative health impacts as well. These include postponement of surgeries and investigations, fewer people seeking help for serious medical issues, a surge in mental health problems, and others.
The majority of new COVID-19 cases in BC can now be traced to known clusters or travellers. This means tracing and isolation of most contacts can be done, and spread is more limited. Because of this, our health leaders believe we can safely move from a 30 per cent level of social interactions (as per March/April) to a 50 to 60 per cent level of interactions (restart plan). It’s a fine balance. More than this is predicted to cause a surge in cases within weeks or months.
Where possible, Dr. Bonnie Henry has chosen to inform and guide us, rather than give us set rules. She has asked us to reflect on our personal circumstances and use personal judgement, rather than requiring us to make the same choices. It is a bold and inspiring strategy, and it has worked well so far. But it is not perfect.
The strategy only works if we collectively continue to take steps to reduce the spread of this virus. “Our success so far, and (our) ability to ease restrictions, relies on our shared commitment and effort, and we need that to continue,” stated Dr. Henry on May 25.
It is still recommended that we keep our personal bubble, or number of close contacts, as small as possible (those you share food or a home with, or spend sustained time fewer than six feet apart). COVID-19 can spread very quickly among close contacts, as well as the wider circle of people our contacts are connected to.
While we can start to engage in more routine activities in our community, most of the time we still need to avoid larger groups and maintain at least two metres of distance from others outside our household. Non-medical masks may help reduce the chance of unknowingly spreading this virus to others, but they do not offer the wearer direct protection.
Staying home when sick, except to seek medical care, is still considered the most important infection control measure during the pandemic. This is a choice we can all make. Any age person can catch COVID-19, and anyone can spread it.
Testing is now available for everyone with symptoms of COVID-19, no matter how few or mild those symptoms may be. These include fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, sore throat, runny nose, loss of smell, diarrhea, and others.
Testing helps us break the chain of transmission by tracing all close contacts of positive cases, and putting out any sparks of illness in our community before they can spread.
We can also help our public health teams by taking the COVID-19 survey: Your story, our future. The survey also has links to initiatives on blood testing for immunity and planning for future waves. It closes on May 31, and can be found at bccdc.ca.
We will share more about the different types of testing in a future article. In the meantime, if you think you need to be assessed for COVID-19 or any other medical issue, contact your family doctor or nurse practitioner, call 811, use the online COVID-19 symptom checker (bccdc.ca), or attend our local emergency department (after calling ahead, if possible).
While our hospital team is well prepared to assess and support you, prevention of illness is always a better option than treatment. Public health measures will continue to be our best community defence against COVID-19 for the weeks and months to come.
Be smart, be safe, and be kind. We are in this together.
Powell River COVID-19 Physician Steering Committee