British Columbia Sees Potential for Years of Social Distancing

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British Columbia saw one of North America’s earliest coronavirus outbreaks. It contained the spread so successfully that more than 50% of critical-care hospital beds are empty. Nevertheless, it’s warning that physical distancing restrictions could last years.

The western Canadian province said Friday that its number of Covid-19 cases, as well as hospitalizations, have peaked and started to decline. In its epidemiological models, B.C. health officials are ditching Italy and Wuhan as reference points because they no longer see a risk of an exponential surge in cases.

B.C. has about 14% of Canada’s population but just 5% of its confirmed virus cases. But in a reality check for those hoping that the pandemic could soon blow over, the province had a dismal message.

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“This is going to be not just weeks, but months and, conceivably, years,” the province’s health minister, Adrian Dix, said.

Like South Korea

Early on, British Columbia seemed poised to become a major epicenter of the virus. Its first confirmed case on Jan. 28 was among the earliest on the continent. That quickly led to a major outbreak in a nursing home in Vancouver that caused Canada’s first Covid-19 death and first confirmed case of community spread.

Yet in subsequent weeks, the virus’ march across the Pacific Coast province has more closely resembled that of South Korea than Italy. It has recorded 1.5 deaths per 100,000 people compared to 6 in Washington state, its closest U.S. neighbor which suffered an early nursing home outbreak at roughly the same time. Of B.C.’s 72 fatalities, all except one were people older than 60.

Earlier, in preparation for the worst, British Columbia emptied out hospitals, canceled elective surgeries, and took over a glitzy convention center on Vancouver’s waterfront to set up 271 emergency beds in halls that typically host international auto shows and film sets.

With only 45% of its critical-care beds occupied, Dix said the province would begin considering in the coming weeks whether to reallocate some of that capacity back to elective surgeries.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the chief medical officer, said the province is modeling to what degree it can relax restrictions, hopefully by the summer, without setting off a resurgence in cases. But she quelled expectations that there would soon be enough so-called herd community to allow normal life to resume. Even Italy hasn’t had enough infections to build that kind of defense, she said.

“What we really need is a vaccine,” she said. Until then, “our new normal is going to be modifications of what we’re seeing right now.”

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