British Columbia·Analysis

Why B.C. will be 'right on the brink' of a COVID-19 resurgence for months to come

British Columbia is seeing a sustained rise in the virus for the first time in months, with hospitalizations at their highest point since June 7 and the five-day rolling average of new cases the highest since May 17. 

Here's why the government believes their approach for Phase 3 will work as well as Phase 1 and 2

The government has been using the same messaging campaign throughout COVID-19, showing illustrations of people against colourful backdrops. (BC Government)

British Columbia has moved to a new stage of its COVID-19 recovery, with Premier John Horgan announcing the move to Phase 3 earlier this week.

British Columbia is also seeing a sustained rise in cases for the first time in months, with hospitalizations at their highest point since June 7 and the five-day rolling average of new cases the highest since May 17. 

If you think there's a risk there, you're not alone. 

"There's a great deal of uncertainty," said Daniel Coombs, a UBC mathematician who has been helping the provincial government with its modelling for COVID-19 since the outbreak began. 

"The modelling projections … really show us right on the brink." 

Despite that, the government is going ahead with Phase 3, encouraging people to travel the province, while also saying we're at a key point where cases could significantly rise if people don't take proper precautions. 

It sounds counterintuitive. 

But then again, a lot of British Columbia's response to COVID-19 has been counterintuitive — from the lack of a formal lockdown, to allowing groups of up to 50 people to gather at all times, to the lack of death projections or edicts around masks.

Here's why the government believes this approach will work as well as their previous ones. 

Uptick predicted

To start with, it's important to keep in mind the province knows there will likely be an uptick in transmission.

"We knew we would see cases when people went back to work," Dr. Bonnie Henry said during a June 25 news conference, one of many times she or Health Minister Adrian Dix have said cases would rise. 

In fact, the government's own modelling as far back as early May showed a likely rise once contacts rose to 60 per cent. 

However, because B.C. had reduced positive cases to such a low point before seriously opening things up, there's more room for error. 

"There [can] be exponential growth, but it can still be quite a slow exponent," said Coombs. 

That allows the province to make adjustments as time goes on — in other words, a doubling of new cases from 10 to 20 provides much more time to make changes than from 40 to 80, assuming the increase from 10 to 20 is even statistically significant. 

"You need to have bigger numbers to easily distinguish trends sometimes because of the [statistical] noise in the reporting of the infection and the reporting processes," said Coombs.

It's one reason the province is focusing on the number of people in critical care rather than the daily case count, and that number remains in the single digits.   

Phase 3 is 4th most important

However, there's also the fact that, for all intents and purposes, nothing will change for most British Columbians as we move from Phase 2 to 3: travel within the province is now encouraged, but was never banned, and large-scale events are still a vaccine away from ever reappearing. 

"The big reopening place was going from Phase 1 to Phase 2," said Coombs.

"If people continue to take the same precautions when they're travelling that they do when they're at home then I don't see an obvious problem."

Mind you, none of this information will make people who are anxious about British Columbia's reopening any less anxious. 

Ever since the province decided a New Zealand-type approach of full quarantine was unlikely to succeed, the strategy has been consistent: detailed contact tracing, positive language focused on keeping others safe, small changes to strategy month by month instead of reacting to the news of the week. 

Even the government's social media campaign has stayed the same — a series of illustrations on colourful backdrops, with simple messages about what people can do in everyday situations to keep themselves safe. 

That approach served B.C. well in Phase 1 and 2. But the nature of the virus — and the expected length of Phase 3 — means the province will continue to be at this brink for some time.   

"Our province somehow has done a really great job up to this point," said Coombs.

"But it would be really a shame to lose that positive momentum."