As B.C. reports a downward bending of the curve in daily case counts of COVID-19, health officials have warned that the highly contagious respiratory illness will continue to pose a risk to daily life until a vaccine is created.
The fact of the matter is that the province, like the rest of the world, will see an ebb-and-flow-like model in how the novel coronavirus spreads, health officials have said, based on a number of factors such as the climate, the level of restrictions placed and how people follow – or don’t follow – these rules.
But as both federal health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, and B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, maintain similar messaging that Canadians must adapt to a “new normal,” a growing choir of non-medically knowledgeable voices are questioning why the virus isn’t simply left to run its course, infecting those who are healthy while protecting seniors and those immunocompromised. It’s a strategy known as “herd immunity.”
The idea is that people contract the virus, with many developing milder symptoms of coughing and a fever, and recover – allowing them to not be at risk of suffering from the virus again. It’s a strategy that health officials in the United Kingdom received international attention for considering in March, before that country saw its peak of COVID-19 cases.
According to statements made at the time by Sir Patrick Vallance, the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser, by allowing people to get the virus during the spring, it would reduce a second peak in the event of a winter resurgence of the virus.
On Saturday (April 18), Henry explained that gaining herd immunity through the transmission of the virus is simply “not a strategy that works,” for a number of reasons.
“The challenge is when you have lots of people become ill with this type of a virus, even young, healthy people will become sick, will need hospitalization, will need ICU [Intensive Care Unit] care and some of them will die,” Henry said.
Herd immunity, also known as herd protection, is created when enough people within a population become vaccinated so that the risk of spreading the disease is lowered to a percentage that offers a measure of protection for those who are not immune.
Without a cure or vaccine, it is up to a person’s immune system to fight COVID-19. While some people can be asymptomatic (no symptoms), or only see mild symptoms from the virus, others run the risk of more severe reactions, such as lung infections.
Henry said that health officials also wouldn’t be able to identify each person at risk – some who may not know they have underlying medical conditions.
She added there would be no way to ensure seniors and other vulnerable people are isolated entirely.
“With a virus that is as infectious as this, that causes this much serious illness … we know that if we let it take its course without trying to do measures to prevent transmission, then you get explosive outbreaks, rapidly increasing numbers of people who get sick,” Henry said, pointing to how Iran and the U.K.’s healthcare systems became overwhelmed by surges of sick people.
“That is not a strategy that works for a virus that has such a high case fatality rate as this one.”
Since the novel coronavirus touched down in B.C. in January, 81 people have died (as of April 18), with a majority of those fatalities linked to ongoing outbreaks at long-term care homes. The median age of those who have died is 86.
While Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix have forgone releasing projected death tolls from COVID-19 like other provinces have done, the province has instead focused on modelling projected hospitalizations based on varying degrees of surges in case numbers.
As of April 14, B.C. had 516 vacant critical care beds available, according to the latest data available.
Since then, daily case counts have remained steady while the number of recoveries continue to climb. Most importantly: hospitalizations have dropped to about 120 cases, with roughly 50 of those people in intensive care.
To prepare for a potential onset of COVID-19 cases, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority has taken over the Vancouver Convention Centre and prepared for it to serve as a makeshift hospital. Patients who aren’t suffering from coronavirus-related symptoms would be transported to the convention centre to free up bed spaces at the four hospitals in the region.
Based on data released by the province, it’s looking like the convention centre won’t have to be used, for now.
On Friday, Henry and Dix announced a small glimmer of hope that some of the current restrictions in place could be eased or lifted in the middle of May, so long as there is a continued downward trend in new cases.
But people should maintain expectations that it could be some time until all of the restrictions are lifted, Henry warned at the time.
“What we really need is a vaccine and it is going to be some time before we get a vaccine.”