Physical distancing has halved spread of COVID-19 in B.C., official modelling suggests

Health officials say physical distancing restrictions in B.C. are successfully beginning to slow the number of new COVID-19 cases in the province, perhaps by as much as half.

However, despite the rate of new cases having slowed “dramatically” over the past week, officials stressed that the province is not out of the woods and the health-care system still needs to be prepared for an inevitable surge in hospitalizations.

“I’m trying not to over-call it, but I do believe we’ve seen a flattening, a falling-off of that curve,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday, referring to the growth of new COVID-19 patients in B.C.

“What we need, though, is for everybody to continue to pay attention to these [physical distancing] measures so we can continue to prevent transmissions in our communities … for the coming weeks.”

The hopeful news came as part of a report released Friday, which found that the province’s health-care system is “reasonably” prepared to handle a surge in critical care cases related to COVID-19.

The report said 17 of the biggest hospitals in B.C. have now been identified as primary COVID-19 treatment sites.

Officials say those hospitals, which are spread across all of the province’s health authorities, have enough capacity to meet the expected critical-care demand, even if the local outbreak were to mimic the severe scenario seen in China’s Hubei province.

And, if it gets to the point where the 17 hospitals can’t keep up, as was the experience in Italy, the province said, additional centres are being prepared to care for the overflow.

Modelling compared B.C. to China, northern Italy

A number of health-care officials compiled the report by comparing the estimated trajectory of new cases in B.C. with the case growth previously seen in two of the most severe coronavirus outbreaks: in northern Italy and China’s Hubei province.

Both regions have been named as epicentres of the pandemic, with a high number of total cases and hospitalizations.

Taking those two regions’ experiences as examples of worst-case scenarios, B.C. looked at its own health-care system to determine whether the province has enough beds and ventilators in case it were to go down a similar path.

The modelling, Henry stressed, is not a prediction of where B.C. is headed but valuable data that can help the province prepare its health-care system.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix provides an update on COVID-19 preparations. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Hospitals capable of dealing with Hubei-like outbreak

B.C. said there is a likely scenario of the province’s outbreak ending up below or at the same level seen in the Hubei province, where the pandemic originated in the city of Wuhan.

The report found the 17 B.C. hospitals identified as primary COVID-19 centres, the province’s largest, would be prepared enough to handle such an outbreak with the highest level of expertise and capacity for critical care.

A briefing offered Friday, however, showed the province would be immediately overwhelmed if B.C. moved to a northern Italy-type trajectory. That scenario is somewhat worse than Hubei’s — Lombardy, the region of northern Italy which includes Milan, saw Europe’s largest coronavirus outbreak and its hospitals saw an unmanageable deluge of patients.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C. is developing a “cascading” approach to free up additional hospital and other capacity over time in case an Italy-type scenario becomes reality in B.C.

The province also believes it should have enough ventilators to meet demand, even if it follows Italy’s pattern, assuming 80 per cent of patients in intensive care units (ICU) need to use them. That said, the report found the most populated areas of the province are better equipped for a bigger outbreak.

Restrictive measures working, province believes

The province believes it will not reach levels of infection seen in China and Italy due to restrictive measures around travel, large gatherings and physical distancing introduced between March 12 and 16. 

Without those measures, officials believe B.C. would have seen a 24 per cent daily increase in cases — or 215 new cases per million people, every day.

Instead B.C. has only seen a 12 per cent daily increase since physical distancing began, or about 130 new cases per million people, the report said.

It means B.C.’s growth rate, in terms of new cases, is currently tracking lower than northern Italy and Hubei.

The drop is enough reason for cautious optimism that B.C.’s case numbers are beginning to level off, but officials cautioned the province could still see a spike if an outbreak were to happen somewhere like a remote community or a vulnerable care home. 

Henry has also warned the 14-day incubation period is not over for people who were infected with the novel coronavirus before the restrictions began, so it will be at least another week before we see the full effects of physical distancing.

B.C. has proactively freed up thousands of hospital beds by deferring non-essential surgeries, something that didn’t happen in overwhelmed countries like Italy. 

As of Thursday, cancelling those non-essential surgeries had freed up around 3,900 beds as well as 371 critical care beds. Dix said there are at least 1,272 ventilators in the province, with more on order.

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