Dr. Patty Daly and Dr. Eric Grafstein were the featured speakers of Temple Sholom’s May 1 Let’s Talk About It webinar. (photos from Temple Sholom)
Temple Sholom began the first of a series of four (possibly five) webinars, called Let’s Talk About It, on May 1 with a public health forum that featured guest speakers Dr. Patty Daly, Vancouver Coastal Health’s chief medical officer, and Dr. Eric Grafstein, the regional head of emergency at VCH and Providence Health Care.
Together, the doctors provided a report from the medical frontlines in Vancouver, as the city responds to the COVID-19 pandemic. They later addressed several concerns raised by members of the community.
Grafstein offered reassuring remarks for those who may be apprehensive about visiting emergency departments. “Emergency departments are a safe place to go during a pandemic,” he said. “If you have things like chest pains or symptoms that you think may be a stroke, then you should be coming to the emergency department.”
Emergency visits declined sharply after a state of emergency was declared in British Columbia on March 18, dropping by half compared to last year, suggesting that people might be holding off from visiting the hospital, he said.
“When people come to a hospital with suspect cases, they are segregated. People who do not have COVID are not put at risk,” Grafstein said. As of the webinar date, about two people per 1,000 who had come to an emergency department in VCH had tested positive for COVID-19, he said.
Physical distancing in the emergency department is done through placing COVID patients in a different area than other patients. The risk of infection is further reduced by fewer people coming to EDs and creating more space in the hospital, he said.
Grafstein said the supply of personal protective equipment for medical workers is secure.
Though the first case of COVID-19 in British Columbia was identified on Jan. 15, the spread of the virus to the region came in early March, likely the result of traffic between British Columbia and the state of Washington, the first area in the United States to experience an outbreak. The number of reported cases in VCH peaked in mid-March and there has since been a decline.
Vancouver’s numbers have compared favourably to those of Toronto and Montreal, and the vast majority of cases here have been mild, said the doctors. The population most at risk is the elderly. Many of the deaths in the region have occurred at long-term-care facilities.
“We’ve done a very good job of flattening the curve – not only in our region but across B.C.,” Daly said. “Our modeling suggests that we can think about lifting some of the measures we have in place.”
Indeed, the province announced its Restart Plan last week. Outpatient services and elective surgeries are to be among the first medical activities to be resumed. An increase in the number of outdoor spaces that the public can access is also planned.
Some daycares – for the children of essential workers – have already reopened, and it is hoped that students will return to schools before the end of the academic year. Bars, restaurants and personal service businesses, such as hairdressers, could potentially reopen in the coming weeks as well, as long as measures, similar to those in grocery stores, are in place.
Universities may return to classes in the fall, though many classes will remain virtual.
There have been few cases of COVID-19 in the region among those under the age of 18, and day camps for children might take place this summer, said Daly.
Gatherings for groups of 50 or more people, such as weddings, funerals and religious services, will be among the last restrictions to be lifted.
“It will be done slowly and in a way that doesn’t lead to a dramatic increase in cases,” Daly said.
“The ultimate solution is a vaccine,” she said.
Neither doctor could predict when a vaccine would be ready, though some trials appear promising. Both doctors reinforced the messages that officials everywhere have been giving for months: stay home if you are sick, cough or sneeze into your elbow, don’t touch your face and wash your hands frequently.
“Anyone with the classic symptoms for COVID – fever, shortness of breath, cough, loss of sense of smell, nausea, diarrhea – should be tested,” Grafstein stressed.
Calling 811 will provide a person with the nearest testing facility. Every positive result is followed up and people who may have had close contact with that person are reached and advised to stay home for 14 days.
VCH covers a population of 1.25 million people, encompassing not just Vancouver but Richmond, the North Shore, the Sunshine Coast and some rural communities, such as Powell River. As of May 8, there had been 866 reported cases of COVID-19 within the VCH region; of those, 78 patients have died and 583 have recovered and discontinued isolation.
“As we open things up, we are doing everything we can to prevent a second wave. We need to also continue to help the most vulnerable,” Daly concluded.
Convened by Temple Sholom’s Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, the webinar was co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver and was attended by more than 200 people. A video recording of the event can be found on Temple Sholom’s website and on YouTube.
Other talks in the Temple Sholom series have been discussions on financial planning and on effective parenting; a session on estate planning is scheduled for May 20.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.