Whistler has seen roughly 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and mostly in the past few weeks, reported Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) in its first public acknowledgement of the total number of cases in the resort.
At its Open Board Forum held virtually Monday, Nov. 30, VCH provided an overview of the pandemic in its coastal and rural communities, which include the Sea to Sky, Sunshine Coast, Powell River and Central Coast.
While its coastal communities make up only six per cent of VCH’s total confirmed COVID cases so far, all of them have seen an increase during the so-called second wave of the virus.
“The wave in coastal rural is almost exclusively due to cases in Whistler, where we have in the last four to five weeks experienced a number of cases among young, working adults,” explained VCH chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly, adding that “much of the transmission has occurred in household settings, and has not spread more broadly to the general population.”
Whistler’s 200 or so cases would make up about 45 per cent of the 446 confirmed cases for the coastal rural health region. Squamish, meanwhile, has had approximately 100 COVID cases since the pandemic began, followed by the Sunshine Coast (48), Powell River (41), and Central Coast and Bella Coola Valley (five each).
That’s compared to 5,562 confirmed cases in Vancouver, 1,123 cases in VCH’s coastal urban region (which includes North and West Vancouver, as well as Bowen Island), and 847 in Richmond.
“Apart from Whistler, Squamish and Powell River, there is no other municipality in our coastal rural communities that has had more than 20 cases since the start of the pandemic. In fact, most of them have had less than five cases,” Daly pointed out.
Through Nov. 27, VCH has seen 8,485 positive cases across all its service areas, with six per cent of those requiring hospitalization, two per cent being admitted to ICU, and two per cent leading to death, primarily linked to outbreaks in long-term care facilities.
Coastal rural communities represent three per cent of all of VCH’s COVID hospitalizations, three per cent of ICU admissions, and less than one per cent of all deaths.
“That tells us that the cases in the coastal rural communities have tended to be milder, with less impact on the populations at greatest risk of severe disease,” Daly said.
VCH expected a bump in cases as the economy reopened, and VCH’s chief medical officer was quick to note that, although adults aged 20 to 39 have experienced a higher proportion of cases compared to their percentage of the population, it doesn’t necessarily mean health guidelines aren’t being followed.
“This is a workforce that has gotten back to work and they have more social connections and they may be infected through those social connections,” Daly explained. “But by and large, for all cases of COVID-19, whether they are young adults or older adults, the vast majority are compliant with public health guidelines to self-isolate when they’re infected or if they’re a close contact of a case.”
It’s the first time VCH has shared community-specific COVID numbers for the Sea to Sky, due to its standing policy not to publicize low case totals in smaller communities in order to protect medical privacy.
“The challenge with providing very small numbers or a number by neighbourhood, for example, is that it could allow people to be identified and it’s really important that we maintain the confidentiality of our cases and our contacts,” Daly said. “Not only because that’s important to maintain their privacy, but because we know if people are worried their identity may become known when they develop COVID-19, they may be reluctant to go for testing and public health follow-up, and that actually can impede our ability to control spread.”
Several of the questions during Monday’s board forum centred on VCH’s communications policy, with members of the public pushing for more localized COVID data, but Daly reiterated that the focus should be on following the appropriate health guidelines.
“Identifying the specific number of past or current COVID cases in your community, almost all of whom are appropriately isolating, is less important than the actions you take in your day-to-day lives,” she said.
When can we expect a vaccine?
Canada currently has purchasing agreements with a number of COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers, and VCH expects the first shipment of vaccines to arrive in early January.
“We have identified priority populations for vaccination based on those most at risk of severe disease,” Daly said. “We’re actively planning to administer the vaccine as soon as shipments arrive.”
‘High-level’ integrated health plan coming for Sea to Sky
During its board forum, VCH also outlined some of the top priorities for care in specific coastal communities, and along with a long-awaited expansion to the trauma room at the Whistler Health Care Centre, funded by the Whistler Health Care Foundation, the health agency has also tapped a consultant to develop “a high-level master plan for the region, as well as local plans for Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton,” explained Karin Olson, VP for the VCH coastal region.
The plan will include an assessment of current clinical services and facilities, future care needs, and “a clear vision for the strategic integration of acute, long-term [care] and community services” within the corridor, said Olson, adding that there will be opportunities for input from local medical staff, physicians and community partners.
Addressing Whistler’s primary care shortage
On the heels of the formation of a local task force, VCH said it is working with Whistler GPs to address the need for primary care in the resort.
“This is a real problem in Whistler and the Sea to Sky corridor has a growing population,” said Dr. Peter Edmunds, medical director for VCH Coastal Communities of Care. “We have a number of people that come there to work for short-ish periods of time and don’t have access to primary care. We’ve lost a number of primary care providers in Whistler, so we’re working actively with the primary care team in Whistler, the GPs there.”
Olson added that VCH has begun preliminary discussions with the task force to identify some of the existing issues and eventually develop “a more robust primary care [model]” that will improve access to care for community members.
“We’re quite excited about this,” she added.
‘Much more work ahead’ to address Indigenous racism in healthcare, says Squamish Nation Chief
Just hours before the open board forum, a damning report examining systemic racism towards First Nations and Métis people in B.C.’s healthcare system was released, prompting an apology from both health minister Adrian Dix and VCH officials.
“This has been a very emotional and humbling day for all of us in the healthcare system in British Columbia, and indeed across Canada,” said VCH board chair Dr. Penny Ballem to open the meeting. “We are on a journey. We need to expedite that journey. It’s not acceptable for us to be providing care that does not address the needs of our Indigenous people, that is not respectful and safe for them and that compromises their health outcomes.”
Authored by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s former child and youth watchdog and a retired judge, the report was based on hundreds of accounts of racism, prejudice and discrimination that led to poorer health outcomes for Indigenous patients.
“Many of the accounts we heard were deeply disturbing, had clearly caused significant harm, and created lasting mistrust and fear of the healthcare system,” she said in a press conference unveiling the findings.
Before opening the forum with a traditional welcome, Squamish Nation Chief Ian Campbell spoke of the report’s significance, and also recalled his grandmother’s experience in B.C.’s healthcare system.
“My late grandmother … was denied service at hospitals other than St. Paul’s—that was the Indian hospital back then,” he explained. “Unfortunately the service that our Indigenous people received in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s was inferior to that of settlers, and we hoped that we would mature as a society and change that now in 2020, but unfortunately there is much more work ahead of us.”
This story was updated Dec.8 to clarify that the upgrade to the Whistler Health Care Centre trauma room is being entirely funded by the Whistler Health Care foundation.