British Columbia

COVID-19 antibody testing finds 'significant' number of cases in Downtown Eastside

An effort to determine the reach COVID-19 has had in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside neighbourhood is moving onto the next phase after showing a significant number of people have been infected — contact tracing to determine to whom else the virus may have been transmitted.

Testing of shelter residents shows neighbourhood hasn't been spared from disease, VIDC says

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside appears to have so far avoided major COVID-19 outbreaks, according to reporting from health officials, but antibody testing is revealing a higher level of transmission than earlier thought. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a heightened level of concern for what might happen to residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside if the neighbourhood was exposed to an outbreak of the disease.

Many of the members of the community live with limited resources, and poverty, drug use and other issues have left a trail of underlying health conditions.

Yet, while more than 8,200 British Columbians — nearly 3,000 of them within the Vancouver Coastal Health region — have tested positive for the virus, the Downtown Eastside appears to have avoided a major outbreak.

But now, according to the Vancouver Infectious Disease Centre (VIDC) — an independent nonprofit that provides clinical services, research and outreach on infectious diseases in the Downtown Eastside — it's clear that the neighbourhood hasn't been spared.

Bloodwork from area residents taken by the VIDC and sent to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) for testing indicate that many have had the disease, VIDC medical director Dr. Brian Conway says.

"Our preliminary results suggest that a significant number of residents of the Downtown Eastside carry antibodies to COVID-19, indicating that they were infected at some point," Conway said.

Conway launched a series of free community "pop-up clinics" to test blood for telltale coronavirus antibodies among Downtown Eastside DTES residents over the summer. The clinics were approved by Health Canada and staffed and funded by the VIDC, he said.

Of the few hundred residents Conway's team tested, a couple of dozen have the antibodies, he said. There appears to be high levels of infection, at least in shelter environments where there is limited ability to maintain physical distancing, he added.

Conway's work is progressing to the contact tracing phase on Tuesday, as he and his team begin to meet with some of the people who tested positive to try to determine how they experienced the disease, when they had it, where they were, and to whom they might have transmitted COVID-19.

Few reported DTES cases

Few cases have been publicly reported in the Downtown Eastside. The Salvation Army confirmed a case at its Vancouver Harbour Light facility in early April, Vancouver Coastal Health advised of a possible exposure at the West Pub between Aug. 20 and Sept 8, and on Monday the United Gospel Mission (UGM) confirmed a tenant at its transitional housing had tested positive.

According to Conway, the First United shelter in the Downtown Eastside was affected by an exposure tied to an outbreak in May at the Matsqui Correctional Institution in Abbotsford.

However, First United executive director Carmen Lansdowne said she wasn't aware of any positive COVID-19 cases at the facility before a case involving staff in early September and a tenant in a private residence — not a shelter guest — who was infected this week and is self-isolating.

The BCCDC publishes reports that detail the number of cases in different areas within health authority regions. The most recent available report up until July 31 shows that 48 people within the region that includes the Downtown Eastside have tested positive — well below most of the other local areas.

But that timeframe doesn't include the period in which the province, generally, has seen a major surge in cases of the virus, and not much is known how the neighbourhood has fared in the past several weeks.

Vancouver Coastal Health has deferred to the BCCDC reporting, while the BCCDC told CBC News that Vancouver Coastal Health manages the cases and follow-ups in its region.

Dr. Brian Conway has previously conducted HIV and hepatitis C screening in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. (Martin Diotte/CBC)

Micheal Vonn, CEO of the PHS Community Services Society, maintains that the number of cases in the Downtown Eastside is relatively low.

"There are cases throughout the entire service continuum in the Downtown Eastside, but they're very, very, very spare," Vonn said on Monday. 

She declined to comment on cases within her large organization, be it staff, residents, or patients.

Conway concedes that hospitalizations and intensive care admissions have been very low in the Downtown Eastside, but the infection rate is cause for concern.

"Up until now it has been sort of thought that the disease really didn't penetrate that neighbourhood," Conway said. "It is incorrect to say that this neighbourhood was spared of COVID-19."

Do you have more to add to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

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