By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Drastic public health orders to combat COVID-19 are here for a while, said B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix.

“I don’t see any prospect before the end of April of those orders changing,” Dix said in Victoria on Monday.

Last week, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry declared a public health emergency, followed by the closing of bars, recreation centres and schools. Restaurants and cafes have been restricted to takeout and delivery, and daycares spaces reserved for the children of essential service providers. Essentially, Henry has  instructed British Columbians not leave home except for exercise, or to get supplies. And to maintain social distancing outside the home at all times.

“We’ve seen the devastation that this virus can have on our communities and our families,” said Henry. “And these are the measures that we need now.”

Canadians, like others around the world, have been sideswiped by the measures necessary to combat the novel coronavirus. Canada has gone from one known case of COVID-19 in mid-January, to 1,646 as of Mar. 23. As testing has massively increased –107,147 tests in Canada – the number of people with confirmed infections is climbing as well.

“Dr. Henry has asked us to do some extraordinary things,” said Dix. “And we need 100 per cent compliance in every community, 100 per cent of people, 100 per cent of the time.”

In B.C., where almost 21,000 tests have been administered, 474 people have tested positive. Positive tests will likely continue to increase as the province has increased testing capacity to 3,000 tests per day, and has been concentrating tests on the people most at risk of contracting the virus: residents in long-term care facilities and front line health care workers.

Protecting those two groups is a priority.

“These are central areas of the government’s response,” said Dix. “To ensure that the people who are most vulnerable to getting the most sick receive the most effort that we can give to support them.”

The biggest dangers of COVID-19 are its ruthlessness in attacking society’s most vulnerable, and the tsunami effect it can have on a country’s health care system during outbreak peaks. Health services and personnel in other jurisdictions around the world have buckled under the stress of too many people needing COVID-19-driven medical assistance at the same time.

B.C. and Canada have had an advantage in not being at the bleeding edge of the first outbreaks. Unlike some other places, B.C. has gotten a jump on building healthcare capacity before the crisis hit.

Several weeks ago, when the number of people in B.C. who had tested positive was still in the low double digits, Henry and Dix released a provincial pandemic plan that included the possibility of  deferring scheduled surgeries and procedures to free up beds and human resources. The ministry wanted to be prepared in case B.C. also experienced a sudden influx of respiratory cases in their hospital emergency rooms.

Nations like Italy, Spain, and others, have experienced how a massive respiratory outbreak can derail any health care system without dedicated capacity. In Italy, stories of scarce medical resources and over-full hospitals tell tales of doctors and emergency responders having to choose which patients to save and which they must leave untreated, knowing they will probably die.

As of Mar. 23, B.C. had emptied 3,632 acute care hospital beds, 177 critical care beds, and freed up untold health care professionals to be at the ready for COVID-19 patients.

“To put it in context, the pre-COVID period this time of year, our bed capacity would be at 103.5 per cent,” said Dix earlier in a press conference. “It’s currently, across the system, as of yesterday … at 68.6 per cent.”

Massive as those numbers sound­ – especially considering 33 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 – it’s not enough.

“We’re going to continue to identify ways to increase available capacity in acute care,” said Dix, who cited a long-term care facility on Vancouver Island that will temporarily take patients from nearby hospitals, a move that will free up 320 acute care beds hospitals in Vancouver and on the island.

“You can understand from that, that we are preparing for a much more serious situation in our acute care sector and in the health of British Columbians,” Dix said during an emergency debate in the Legislature today.  “We are actively modelling on these questions of what people can expect and, in fact, those models guide these sort of decisions — some of the most difficult that I’ve ever been involved in and would ever be involved in, and that’s true of everyone else in the health care system. But that tells you what we’re facing in front of us, I think.”

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