British Columbia

A year after Canada's 1st COVID-19 fatality, health officials reflect on pandemic death toll

B.C.'s top doctor says the day the first British Columbian died of COVID-19 marked a turning point in her outlook on the pandemic.

Provincial Health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry recalls feeling sense of dread

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry listens during a news conference about the provincial response to the coronavirus, in Vancouver, on Friday, March 6, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

B.C.'s top doctor says the day the first British Columbian died of COVID-19 marked a turning point in her outlook on the pandemic.

"When I look back [on] that day, it really was a sense of dread," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. "Knowing that this was going to be a hard and emotional year." 

In a press conference on March 9, 2020, Henry was visibly shaken as she announced that a man in his 80s who lived at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver had died after contracting COVID-19. His death marked Canada's first fatality from the virus.

Twenty more residents at the home would eventually die after contracting the illness.

A man wearing a protective suit and a mask is pictured at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, March 9, 2020. A man in his 80s who lived in the nursing home became the first fatality of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"It became very apparent that for elderly people it could cause very minimal symptoms, but lead to death very quickly," Henry said.

Since last March, 1,391 British Columbians have lost their lives to the virus. More than two thirds of deaths have been in seniors 80 years and above, mostly in care facilities.

Deaths multiply in long-term care

Garry Monckton was one of the earliest victims of COVID-19 on April 2. The 77-year-old was infected at the Haro Park care centre in Vancouver's West End where he was a resident.

"We saw each other for the last time on March 14," his daughter Samantha Monckton recalled. "I had heard, in the hallways, of COVID being in North Vancouver but it hadn't come to the West End yet, but it was like a prediction of what was to come."

Monckton says her father was the 31st person to die in B.C. "It was very alarming at the time, knowing that we had reached 31 people."

Learning about new deaths hasn't become any easier, said Henry. The once daily, and now biweekly, press conferences held by Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix are always marked by the health officials' condolences to the new victims of the virus.

"People tell me that they appreciate that I recognize the importance of their loved ones," said Henry. "I do feel every single one of them and I've reached out and connected to many of the families."

"That moment, every day [when we learn that people have passed away] is the most difficult piece of news we get every day," said Dix.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix give their daily update on COVID-19 in B.C. on July 6, 2020. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Henry had been responding to the COVID-19 situation since late December 2019 when details began to emerge about the virus spreading in China.

She says it brought up the fear and dread she'd experienced during the 2004 SARS outbreak in Toronto.

"I think many people, maybe early on, thought I was overreacting but that was part of my experiences."

Henry says she resisted pressure from the media early on to present modelling of the province's potential death rate because she believed it would give the impression that any deaths were acceptable.

Pandemic response had consequences

One of the earliest measures Henry and Dix implemented to prevent infections and deaths among vulnerable seniors was to restrict visits to long-term care homes.

The minister says they were conscious of the potential consequences of that order on seniors' lives.

"In many cases they don't have long to live, and telling them they can't have visits has a huge impact on the remainder of their lives."

The pandemic's death toll also extends beyond COVID-19 related deaths, said Dix. Health officials also foresaw the devastating impact the pandemic would have on the province's overdose crisis.

In 2020, 1,716 people died due to illicit drug use — B.C.'s deadliest year on record for drug overdoses, with almost five people dying every day on average, according to the BC Coroners Service. 

Join us as experts answer some of your vaccine questions on a special CBC News National Town Hall on Tuesday, March 9. We'll discuss the differences between vaccines, how vaccine passports work and where you might be in the queue. The special starts at 8 p.m. ET on CBC Gem and CBC News Network, and 10 p.m. local time (10:30 p.m. NST) on CBC Television.

With files from Geneviève Lasalle


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