How accurate are B.C.'s COVID-19 infection numbers? No one knows for sure
VANCOUVER -- As the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections continues to rise, there are growing questions about how accurate and useful those figures are in British Columbia.
Every day, CTV News is hearing from more and more people who say they’re not being tested for the virus despite having its key symptoms because they don’t meet the testing criteria, as well as others who say their test results are taking upwards of a week, suggesting health officials are giving the public dated information at their daily briefings.
When asked whether there was a value in giving daily infection updates considering those factors, especially when the low number of confirmed cases may result in people downplaying the disease, B.C.'s provincial health officer didn’t answer directly.
"We're testing people with symptoms and that is what everyone is doing," said Dr. Bonnie Henry at her daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday. "It's not unusual. That’s what we've always been doing. The only people we are not testing at the moment are people who have returned from travel who have very mild illness that is able to be managed at home and we don't need to test those people if they're in isolation and not going to transmit this disease – that allows us to focus the testing on healthcare workers, on the outbreaks we're managing and clusters in the community and there's a lot of that testing going on.”
That raises the question of how a cluster or community outbreak is defined.
The province’s own website dedicated to COVID-19 self-assessment doesn’t explain what that means, and anecdotal evidence compiled from dozens of people CTV News has heard from suggests that call-takers at the 811 healthline, doctors’ offices and urgent care centres aren’t considering the possibility of clusters or outbreaks.
Despite having fever, cough and - in some cases - trouble breathing, multiple people report being told that unless they’re likely to be hospitalized or a healthcare worker, testing is not an option. In one case, a Langley family speaking publicly about the lack of testing was only invited for a swab after their story was published.
It’s important to note that the typical COVID-19 symptoms of fever and cough don’t require medical attention and that patients will have to self-isolate and ride out the illness at home in most cases. That said, awareness of the true extent of infection and the prevalence of possible contact in the community is an issue that sick people interviewed by CTV News and social media users alike continue to raise.
“The numbers have gone up to thousands of people a day that have been tested, so it's not like we're not testing a lot of people,” said Henry, noting that for the delayed results “it has been a challenge for the number of different laboratories across the province to consolidate those numbers."
An extreme example
In Northern Italy, where the novel coronavirus started spreading like wildfire and is now leading to more deaths than the Chinese outbreak, officials have brought new cases down to zero in a small town.
In Vo, every one of the 3300 residents was tested twice to ensure even asymptomatic carriers were isolated at home. The Guardian newspaper quoted an Italian immunologist who insisted mass tests are critical to containing the disease.
“The isolation of asymptomatics is essential to be able to control the spread of the virus and the severity of the disease,” according to professor Sergion Romagnani of the University of Florence.
On Monday, the director general of the World Health Organization echoed that sentiment.
“The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission and to do that you must test and isolate,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded and we cannot fight this pandemic if we don't know who is infected.”
Singapore is often brought up as an example of a country where thorough and aggressive testing minimized the spread of infections as officials were able to track down contacts quickly for quarantine before they could infect others.
What comes next
As public pressure grows to test more people with COVID-19 symptoms to get a better picture of exactly how many British Columbians have it - and thus have the potential to make others life-threateningly ill - the province’s top doctor insists that’s exactly what she’s working on.
“We've got some more equipment coming on and the labs are working 24-7,” said Henry. “I'm confident this strategy will help us get a better picture of what's going on.”