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Les Leyne: Virus’s stealth attack on B.C.

On March 1, COVID-19 was a big thunderhead that was threatening other parts of the world, but the forecast suggested it would mostly slide by Canada and B.C.
Katie Kempton, a laboratory technologist at LifeLabs, demonstrates one of the steps taken when a specimen is tested for COVID-19 at the company's lab in Surrey.

On March 1, COVID-19 was a big thunderhead that was threatening other parts of the world, but the forecast suggested it would mostly slide by Canada and B.C. In just four weeks it changed from a worrisome issue in other countries to the most profound emergency since the Second World War, here and around the globe. It happened so fast it’s hard to comprehend.

To help process what happened to our world, here’s a B.C. diary of how March turned into the month that changed history.

The first mention of “coronavirus” in the Times Colonist appeared Jan. 12. It was a story about the first death in Wuhan of a man who was one of 42 people there who had pneumonia associated with a new form of virus.

“Canadians at low risk from new pneumonia in China” was the reassuring headline days later. Federal and provincial health offices were mobilizing to track the phenomenon.

“Risk considered low for B.C.,” was the headline on Jan. 22, after Seattle reported its first case. The story quoted officials reasonably confident it wouldn’t land here in any strength.

The optimism was based partly on China being more forthcoming than it was during the 2003 SARS outbreak, when prevarication and coverups interfered with the response. With more information made available, including the genetic details of the virus, more progress could be made fighting it, went the theory.

It later came to light that China was a long way from transparent. Police threatened the first doctor to sound the alarm and their overall response has been criticized.

Health surveillance was stepped up here and the first B.C. case was reported Jan. 28. A trickle of new positive results started showing up in subsequent days.

At first, all were travellers who had returned from countries where infections were further along. The disease was named COVID-19 on Feb. 11.

When March 1, dawned, B.C. had eight cases based on 1,000 tests.

March 2 - B.C. asked all travellers returning from Iran and China to voluntarily self-isolate for 14 days. There was a hint of what was to come. “You will want to ensure you have sufficient food, medications and support in place for you and your family to stay home for a number of days. These are the normal preparations when someone in your family is ill. There is no requirement for British Columbians to stockpile supplies.” (The toilet paper panic-buying was just starting.)

March 3 - Four new cases were reported and the precautions were expanded.

“We recommend suspending usual greetings such as handshakes, hugs and kisses.”

That update was the last one to include the phrase “the risk of this virus spreading within B.C. remains low at this time.”

March 6 - Officials activated the pandemic co-ordination plan: More testing, government continuity planning in the event of large-scale absenteeism, health authority emergency operation committees were announced and close contact made with business and community leaders.

March 7 - Social distancing was strongly recommended, based on notable transmissions at gatherings. Cruise ship travel was discouraged.

March 9 - The first B.C. death was announced. It was an older man the previous night at the Lynn Valley care home that was eventually ravaged by the disease. Fourteen people there have now died from the virus.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlined the standard precautions and looked ahead: “We’re not at the point where I would see us ordering all public gatherings to stop, but we are watching that. That is something that might happen.”

March 11 - The first case on Vancouver Island was reported. The World Health Organization officially proclaimed COVID-19 a pandemic, a declaration now considered to have been unnecessarily delayed.

March 12 - B.C. directed an end to all gatherings of more than 250 people. The government recommended against all non-essential travel, including to the U.S.

Anyone who did so was asked as a civic duty to self-quarantine for two weeks.

March 16 - The case count topped 100, including a significant number from a huge dental conference held in Vancouver March 6 -7.

The 250 limit on public gatherings was lowered to 50.

All non-urgent scheduled surgeries were postponed in B.C. hospitals and prescription renewals were made easier to free up doctors’ time.

Emergency registration of all retired health-care professionals was started.

Casinos closed.

March 17 - Worst St. Patrick’s Day ever. With 186 reported cases in B.C. and seven deaths, Henry declared a public health emergency. All bars and nightclubs were required to close if they couldn’t meet social-distancing standards. All restaurants and cafés that could not sustain the two-metre rule had to move to take-out and delivery only.

March 18 - The health emergency was upgraded to a provincial emergency, giving the government power to intervene in supply chains and control trade in essential goods, if necessary.

March 23 - The number of confirmed cases based on testing was 472, 39 on Vancouver Island, with 13 deaths. Almost 18,000 tests had been conducted. The legislature convened with a skeleton crew of MLAs on hand to pass two urgent bills. A $5-billion action plan was unveiled to start coping with the fallout from the economic catastrophe.

It included income support, tax relief and direct funding.

March 24 - Six parks on the Island were closed, as did the Empress and Grand Pacific Hotels. The city of Victoria dropped the idea of using Beacon Hill Park for temporary homeless shelters, but continued plans to do so at Topaz and Royal Athletic Parks.

The provincial count of positive tests climbed to 617 cases, from 26,600 tests.

March 25 - Henry remarked on how the pandemic exposed the fragility of the long-term care system, where most of the fatalities are. She also confirmed the strain put on medical supplies, saying the there had been a dramatic increase in use of personal protective equipment. “The burn rate is much higher than we would have expected. We are putting in place measures to try and control that and be more efficient and effective.”

March 27 - Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix outlined the detailed planning for the hospital system, which had slashed occupancy over the month. Nineteen hospitals were designated for COVID-19 care only, to keep patients and staff in one place in order to contain transmission.

Assuming worst-case hospitalization rates from northern Italy, the models showed the extraordinary pressure B.C. hospitals would be put under. As an example, part of the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre is being converted to a hospital with more than 200 beds.

March 28 - Henry discussed the actual number of COVID-19 cases in B.C. It could be as many as 3,000, but the exact number is unknowable, partly because some people have mild, undetectable symptoms.

“It’s a guess based on what we’ve seen in other places, looking at a number of different things.”

B.C.’s Centre for Disease Control was working with others around the world to estimate the actual count by way of the number of deaths and hospitalizations and other factors, she said.

March 31 - At their 40th daily briefing since COVID-19 turned into a crisis, Dix and Henry’s final update of the month illustrated the progression.

B.C. went from eight cases to 1,013 in a month, even with drastic curtailment of public interactions. That’s about the same number of H1N1 cases identified over much of 2009.

Twenty-four people died in the space of three weeks, the youngest aged 60, compared with 56 lost to H1N1 over the year.

The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized rose to 128, with about 60 in intensive care.

The number of people who fully recovered is 507 as of Tuesday.

Elsewhere in society in March, the government plunged billions of dollars into the red.

The huge service economy, the transportation and travel sector and many others have staggered almost to a halt and hundreds of thousands of people have been laid off.

Post-secondary is down, schools are trying to operate remotely and calculations about the long-term impact to society have scarcely started.

And across all media there are stories of kindness, co-operation and compassion breaking out all over.

In two weeks, people went from assuming the health-care system is just a fact of life to taking part in noisy city-wide demonstrations of support for those workers every night.

It was made clear Tuesday that restrictions will likely run for months.

Pleading earlier for universal compliance with the new rules of life, Dix warned: “We have two paths ahead: We will begin to see evidence of a flattened curve or our rates of infection will rise even more.”