British Columbia

The week in COVID-19: B.C. economy improving, but new community cases show virus fight far from over

A growing number of people in B.C. are returning to work and leisure activities, but new cases in the community show it’s too early to relax

People in B.C. are returning to work and leisure activities, but community cases show it's too early to relax

Alaric Posey, assistant conductor and choir manager of Highs and Lows Choir, sings at the group's first practice together since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

British Columbia's economy is showing glimmers of recovery, but new community cases of COVID-19 show it's far too early to relax, said B.C.'s top doctor this week.

"We've seen elsewhere around the world, including the United States and other places, that things can quickly escalate once again if we let our guard down," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Thursday.

The week saw positive cases pop up at multiple Vancouver nightclubs, a Burnaby fitness club, a McDonald's in Surrey and a Vancouver 7-Eleven store.

On Friday, the province reported 25 new cases, the biggest one-day jump since May 8. On Thursday, an additional 20 new cases were reported. 

This week B.C.'s total COVID-19 case count also passed the 3,000 mark, reaching 3,053 cases by the end of the week.

As of Friday, there were 187 active cases in the province, with 16 people currently in hospital and five in intensive care. A total of 2,679 people who tested positive have recovered.

The province is also looking into whether nightclubs are following provincial rules after two strip clubs, No5 Orange and Brandi's, as well as Hotel Belmont, showed positive cases, but officials were unable to contact everyone who had visited. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Because the disease is still circulating, Henry emphasized, everyone must keep up prevention measures such as physical distancing and wearing masks until a treatment or vaccine is available. 

The province is also looking into whether nightclubs are following provincial rules after two strip clubs, No5 Orange and Brandi's, as well as Hotel Belmont, showed positive cases, but officials were unable to contact everyone who had visited the clubs.

Tracking tests

Henry also said the province is still working to identify a reliable antibody test to determine how many people have been infected and recovered without ever testing positive for COVID-19.

The tests have been problematic, she explained, with a high prevalence of both false positive and false negative results. As a result, the province is using different tests to validate any positives.

"The bottom line from what I've seen so far is it reflects what we have seen here in British Columbia, that very few people have become affected at a population level," she said, promising more detailed information next week.

'A picture of cautious optimism'

At the same time, the B.C. economy is showing gradual signs of recovery. According to new data released by Statistics Canada, the province's unemployment rate dropped by 0.4 per cent in June after rising for three months straight.

It now sits at 13 per cent, with the number of people employed in B.C. rising by 118,000 in June, after an increase of 43,000 in May.

Speaking at a Friday morning news conference, Finance Minister Carole James said the data "paints a picture of cautious optimism, with a long road ahead."

James said the gains bring back roughly 40 per cent of the jobs that had been lost since February. The total net job losses from the COVID-19 pandemic are approximately 235,000 in B.C.

Closed for business

Speaking of long roads ahead, a growing number of people in B.C. are heading out on vacation — but some B.C. Indigenous communities are expressing concerns over the possible arrival of COVID-19 along with summer travellers.

This week the Lower Similkameen Indian Band closed the Chopaka Bridge Beach, a private beach on reserve land that's popular with tourists.

"This year with pandemic happening and everything that's going on in the States, we have a lot of U.S. travellers that end up stopping at this beach," said Chief Keith Crow on Daybreak South. "It's time to keep our members safe."

Chopaka Bridge Beach near Osoyoos in southern B.C. is now closed to the general public. (Submitted by Keith Crow)

Meanwhile a luxury fishing lodge on Haida Gwaii says it plans to reopen this weekend despite a state of emergency issued by the Haida Nation as a result of the pandemic.

Queen Charlotte Safaris president Paul Clough says the lodge is 45 kilometres from the nearest community and complies with all orders and guidelines issued by the province and WorkSafe BC.

However in a statement the Council of the Haida Nation said the protection of its communities is paramount.

"These are our lands and waters," said Chief Councillor Duffy Edgars of the Old Massett Village. "We will decide when it's time to open back up to visitors, and until that invitation is open, Haida Gwaii is closed to all non-essential travel and non-residents."

A group of Haida matriarchs also vowed to occupy two ancient villages on Haida Gwaii in protest.

No Infections From Protests

Anti-racism protests have drawn thousands of people across B.C. but this week Henry also confirmed that the province has not seen any cases of COVID-19 that are linked to the protests, the largest of which took place June 5 and June 19.

Dr. Bonnie Henry said public health officials in other parts of North America have reported similar results.

Thousands of people have gathered for anti-racism protests in B.C. in recent weeks, but no COVID-19 cases have been linked to the marches. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"We follow up every single case here in B.C.," Henry said. "The short answer is no … currently we do not have any cases that have been associated with the protests that took place."

Henry emphasized that infections were likely prevented because people were outside, and most tried to keep their distance and wore masks.

But Henry said officials in the U.S. have connected virus transmission to other large outdoor gatherings — particularly parties on the beach.

"That was surprising," she said. "Many of us thought there would be a similar risk."

Long-Term Improvement

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed serious flaws with B.C.'s long-term care system, says health officials, and during the Thursday briefing this week, Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said that big changes are needed.

"What this pandemic has absolutely exposed is the vulnerabilities in many of our long-term care homes," Henry said.

Graham Drew, 96, father of Deanna Harlow and Debbie Drew tested positive for COVID-19 while at the Lynn Valley Care Centre. (Debbie Drew)

The comments come as B.C. begins opening up long-term care facilities to some non-essential visitors after months of isolation for residents, and a rising tide of complaints from families with loved ones in hard-hit care homes.

Dix said the "fundamental challenge" will be to shift priorities so extending people's lives isn't the sole focus.

"We have to allow people to live life. This has been the profound contradiction and it's why restoring visits was so important," he said.