Metro Vancouver's top doctor defends response, transparency amid COVID-19 outbreaks

The Chief Medical Health Officer of Vancouver Coastal Health is speaking out about controversy over transparency about COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care homes. Linda Aylesworth reports.

The top doctor for Vancouver Coastal Health is defending the public release of information about COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care homes, saying her team’s priority is communicating with and supporting patients’ families.

Dr. Patricia Daly said she supports the province’s new plan unveiled on Thursday to release detailed data on outbreaks at seniors’ care facilities on a weekly basis, and that a single authority on the pandemic is necessary to avoid confusion.

“I support having a single voice with (provincial health officer) Dr. (Bonnie) Henry going forward for the pandemic response,” she told Global News Monday.

“That’s because we know that we want to be consistent in the messages conveyed around the province with my colleagues and other health authorities.”

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Daly also said it was never her team’s intention to “hide” information from the public about those outbreaks, but rather to ensure they weren’t reporting cases and deaths before their families were aware first.

“We did find that early on (in the pandemic) when the province was releasing information on a daily basis about outbreaks, … that caused a lot of anxiety among some family members because sometimes the numbers released in those daily press conferences didn’t align with the latest information,” she explained.

In the fall, the province stopped the practice of notifying the public on how many cases of the virus had been detected in each care home. Instead, the province provided the overall number of cases linked to both residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

That decision, and the lack of subsequent information from health authorities like VCH, has been criticized after reports emerged about worsening outbreaks like the one at Little Mountain Place in Vancouver. Out of the long-term care home’s 114 residents, 99 have tested positive and at least 41 of those have died.

Seventy staff members were also infected but most have recovered amid the outbreak, which didn’t become public until it was well underway.

Daly said she understands the public’s frustration about the slow release of information, but added she and her team are working hard to address a number of outbreaks in other facilities — a trend she said was due to ongoing community spread of the virus.

“The intensity of some of those outbreaks, that it was a bit of a shock to some members of the public when some of those numbers became public, (but) it certainly wasn’t our intent to hide anything,” she said.

“Despite all the good work that we established last spring in putting in place appropriate measures to control the spread in long-term care, with the increase of COVID-19 in the community, this also increased the risk that it could enter long-term care,” she explained.

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As of the most recent provincial update on long-term care outbreaks last Thursday, 43 long-term care homes and eight assisted or independent living facilities are currently seeing outbreaks. Of those, 11 long-term care homes are located in the VCH area.

About two-thirds of the province’s 1,010 deaths related to COVID-19 since the pandemic began are related to long-term care, according to provincial data.

“It’s been devastating,” she said. “I fully empathize with each and every one of those families.”

Daly said her team is working diligently to address those outbreaks and prevent further deaths where possible, such as surveillance of symptoms and contact tracing.

Enhanced precautions are also put in place whenever an outbreak is declared, she said, including limiting staff to a single facility and reducing visitation. But she said those measures can only go so far.

“What we’ve learned about this virus, it can be very insidious when staff become infected, and often they’re infected in the community. They may not know they’ve been exposed,” she said. “So even in a facility that’s doing an excellent job screening all their staff for symptoms, there may have been an exposure in the facility.”

Beyond long-term care homes, Daly said VCH has had some successes in combatting the pandemic. She said Metro Vancouver has done well compared to other municipalities in B.C. and across Canada in limiting the spread of the virus, which she attributed to general acceptance of public health restrictions. And she said an expected explosion in cases and deaths never fully materialized in the Downtown Eastside, which has seen hundreds of infections instead of the thousands anticipated.

“Our front-line public health team works seven days a week, actively following up on cases and contacts and isolating those cases and especially isolating the close contacts of cases,” she said. “That’s how you can stop chains of transmission in the community. We don’t often pay much attention to that in the public.

“That’s something we’ve been able to do and we’re quite proud of that fact. And I think that’s one of the reasons why our rates of new infections are lower than some other places.”

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At 6.8 per cent, VCH boasts the lowest rate of active cases compared to total confirmed infections in the province, with 914 patients currently recovering from the virus. The authority has seen a total of 13,312 cases to date.

Daly said her goal moving forward will be to continue bringing the local pandemic curve down and actively communicating the importance of following public health measures.

“There’s been very few weekends I’ve taken off since the start of the pandemic,” she said. “My primary goal is to remain there on the front lines responding.

“There was never any question about not being transparent. We want to we want to support a consistent message to the public. So there’s no confusion, whether it’s about the pandemic or about the rollout out of the vaccination program

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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