VANCOUVER -- Why has Canada been more successful at limiting the spread of COVID-19 than our neighbours in the U.S.?

One “critically important” factor is Canada’s universal health care system, B.C. health officials said Thursday.

“People don’t have to pay for a test,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said after being asked to weigh Canada’s advantages. “They weren’t worried that if they got sick they would not be able to get care.”

Her remarks came hours after advocates of paid alternatives to public care were dealt a major blow in B.C. Supreme Court.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix agreed with Henry’s assessment, calling the public health system “at the core” of Canada’s success in battling the pandemic.

The structure of the public system made it easy for officials to co-operate and consolidate their approach, both nationally and provincially, Dix said.

“It means that we have an organized public health care system, that when Dr. Henry and (deputy health minister Stephen) Brown chair our response to COVID-19, all of the health authorities were in the room,” Dix said.

Henry noted that she and her fellow health officers from across the country began meeting regularly early on in the pandemic to develop their approach - though provinces did react differently and at different times, based on their own circumstances.

She also credited “incredible experts” on testing both in B.C. and nationwide for the country’s success.

“Our National Microbiology Laboratory and our public health lab network was able to develop tests, and we used them widely very early on,” she said.

Since the start of the pandemic, many Canadians have watched the U.S. handling of the coronavirus crisis with great concern.

As of Friday morning, the number of U.S. deaths blamed on COVID-19 had surpassed 192,000, while Canada's death toll remained below 9,200.

And while the U.S. has a vastly larger population — 328.2 million to Canada’s 37.6 million — the number of deaths per capita is still much higher south of the border. There have been about 585 deaths per million residents in the U.S. and 244 per million in Canada.

In terms of overall cases, the U.S. has recorded some 6.42 million, compared to about 135,000 in Canada. That works out to more than 19,500 cases per million residents in the U.S. and roughly 3,600 per million here.