British Columbia

What we know — and don't know — about surging COVID-19 cases in B.C.'s long-term care homes

On Monday, B.C.’s chief health officer said it was too difficult for the province to say how many COVID-19 cases and deaths there had been in individual care homes. 

Government reduced transparency in October and hasn’t provided any official numbers in nearly a month

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the province stopped collecting data on individual care home cases because its IT system wasn't good enough. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

On Monday, B.C.'s chief health officer said it was too difficult for the province to say how many COVID-19 cases and deaths there had been in individual care homes. 

"We do not have an IT system to do that efficiently," said Dr. Bonnie Henry, explaining why B.C. had not been disclosing that information since the second half of October. 

"As the numbers increased, the actual person power to get that information every day and collate it was taking hours and hours of epidemiology time."

Henry's comments came after weeks of questions over deaths in B.C.'s long-term care homes — specifically at Little Mountain Place, where at least 38 residents have died and more than 85 per cent have tested positive for the virus.  

After months of B.C. being able to contain the virus in long-term care homes, the province has seen a surge in cases since November, but with less transparency over the extent of individual outbreaks. 

"Some outbreaks have been very, very challenging," said Henry.  

 "We don't know the reason it seems to spread in some facilities more than others." 

What do we know?

The provinces measure any positive cases in what they call "care facilities," which include community living group homes, independent living group homes, assisted living, and other residential facilities. 

In the first wave of B.C.'s pandemic, there were between 40 to 80 cases in those facilities each week — including both residents and workers — and 10 to 20 deaths. 

Like the rest of the province, that number dipped substantially for months: there were five separate weeks when the number of total cases was in single digits, and five separate weeks with only one death. 

But the numbers began increasing steadily in August, and in November and December, there were more than 400 cases a week in care facilities — five to seven times more than in the first wave of the pandemic. 

In the first two weeks of December, approximately 200 residents died of COVID-19, more than the entire period between January and October. 

The government has not provided an update on deaths or cases since Dec. 12. 

When asked by CBC News if an update could be shared, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Health said none would be forthcoming until the end of this week. 

Why the decrease in transparency?

On Monday, Henry said the change in transparency was due to a lack of ability.     

"In terms of the data, there has been no change in policy," she said.

"When we had smaller numbers, [there were] daily updates on long-term care, but it's not a policy change, it was merely trying to keep up with the amount of data that we were trying to collect."

But that contradicts what Vancouver Coastal Health said last month

"To avoid causing unnecessary concern, and out of respect for the privacy of residents and their families, we do not disclose specific numbers for active outbreaks," it wrote in a statement.

A spokesperson later told CBC News the explicit decision to change its strategy was made after the health authority concluded releasing daily counts for individual facilities in the spring had resulted in too many families contacting care homes. 

Provinces continuing to include numbers at individual facilities include Ontario and Saskatchewan. 

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