The summer’s COVID-19 cases have been similar or exceeded the daily heights of spring, but the severity of those infected is as distinct as a second pandemic, said B.C.’s Health Minister Adrian Dix.
“It’s really a tale of two pandemics,” Dix said during a northern B.C. tele-briefing on Sept. 4.
In April, when new cases ranged up to 80 a day, about 23 per cent of those diagnosed had been hospitalized, with as many as 150 people in acute care at one time.
Over the summer, new cases swung from the 20s to more than 120 daily. Yet, as of Sept. 3, only 34 people were in hospital and 10 per cent of everyone diagnosed to date had been hospitalized.
“In that sense,” said Dix, “we have a different pandemic than we had before.”
A key driver of the difference is the younger demographic who tested positive over summer. The majority were between 20 and 39 years-old, dropping the median age of diagnosis from 53 years-old in the spring, to 40 years-old by Labour Day weekend. Since symptoms of COVID-19 tend to worsen with age, the increase in cases didn’t cause a commensurate leap in hospitalizations or deaths.
On April 22, for instance, there were 71 new cases and 103 people in hospital. On Sept. 4, there were 121 new cases but only 34 people were in hospital.
Despite an increase in cases in July and August, relatively few people died. No one under 40 has died from COVID-19 in B.C.
Another distinction lies in the state of seniors’ care facilities. During the spring, the Lower Mainland was beset by upwards of 30 outbreaks in long-term care and assisted-living operations, versus nine outbreaks in early September.
That tends to affect the numbers, said Dix, driving the median age up or down depending how many residents were diagnosed. Over the duration of the pandemic, 443 residents in seniors’ facilities had contracted the disease in B.C., all of whom lived within the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal health authorities.
The story is different in the North, where no seniors have tested positive in residential health care facilities and no one has died from COVID-19 as of early September.
In fact, for most of June and into July, the North didn’t log a single new diagnosis. The Interior and Lower Mainland regions began logging new diagnoses in mid-July. One week later, the virus reared up again in the North. By the end of July, Northern Health’s pre-summer total of 65 positive cases had grown to 88.
In the early days of the pandemic, when just six people had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the North, Northern Health had the oldest median age – 65 years-old – at diagnosis. By mid-summer, that age had dropped to 37, the youngest in the province (along with the Interior), before climbing to 42 years-old in early September.
“It’s more difficult to draw conclusions that are specific to Northern Health,” said Dix. “Because the absolute numbers are low.”
While summer cases in the North increased since June, only 174 people out of the 6,162 provincewide COVID-19 total had tested positive for COVID-19 in Northern Health by Sept. 4.
A good portion of the July increases were from a community exposure on Haida Gwaii, which ultimately infected about 25 people.
Since then, other hot spots have cropped up.
“We’re facing some challenges right now,” said Dix. “In the northeast with respect to the transmission of COVID-19.”
As of early September, nearly 20 British Columbians and their close contacts in the Fort St. John area had tested positive after returning from an evangelical gathering in Alberta.
Still, cases per population in B.C. remain well below the danger zone provincially, says Henry, citing European and American sources which use a measure of 25 cases per 100,000 population as the point when businesses and schools should shut down.
“We can see across BC, we are well below that,” Henry said.
As of Sept. 3, the Lower Mainland region had the highest rates with a 16-person per 100,000 rate of diagnosis, while Vancouver Island and the North were the lowest with about two people per 100,000.
“In most of BC, our community transmission rates are very low,” said Henry.
Which doesn’t mean we can relax.
“We’re at that precipice, if you will,” Henry said, “where we need to take the actions to ensure that we can move forward into the fall and keep our curve low.”
Henry suggests avoiding parties and minimizing close contacts.
“There’s no magic number,” she said, “but we know the fewer people, the better.”