Better COVID-19 testing results needed in the north

Former senior Northern Health official also wants work camps shut down

Dear Editor:

Open letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry,

BC Provincial Health Officer

Re: Northern public health response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

First of all, kind personal regards, and appreciation for the work you are doing to help people in B.C. both understand and respond to this unprecedented global outbreak.

I am writing as the former chief medical health officer for Northern Health on the basis of decades of experience with public health here and as a citizen wanting do what I can in this crisis.

I know that public health in this region can only be effective when the communities themselves are engaged and when they can draw on their strengths: the independence, practicality and mutual support that First Nations have always had, and which for the most part, the rest of us bring with us when we make the choice to live here.

We will never have all the health care resources that we need close enough to home which is why we are so often referred “out” to the lower mainland for specialized care when we need it. We have learned how to make this difficult situation work reasonably well by sharing scarce resources across communities, for example, by creating a health bus service, and by making the best use of what we have in ways which are often unique to individual communities.

COVID-19 is making this much more difficult now and it is why I am writing you with two urgent priorities for your immediate action.

1. Provide individual communities in the North with COVID-19 test results as they become available.

You did this extremely well for people in the lower mainland when there were early cases related to travel, or to a particular care home, and you have been excellent too, at putting numbers in context. When community spread began to happen you told Vancouverites about it case by case while making it clear that the virus is in all likelihood well ahead of the numbers. People were able to arm themselves with information, imperfect as it was. Most importantly you gained their trust. That is not the case here where, as I understand it, this information is being withheld.

A positive test in Fort Nelson would matter greatly to the residents as would a positive test to the people on Haida Gwaii but you would have difficulty getting from one of these places to the other in less than 2 full days. For practical purposes, if you lump them together, you would be telling people in Vancouver about cases in Winnipeg.

Telling Northerners that we have 12 positive tests from our region without providing the location or putative source is to tell them (us) nothing. This is dangerous, especially in light of the prolonged delays we often experience just getting test results to Vancouver for processing. Those positive tests are like flashing lights to remind us that the virus was already in this location or that one, 10 days to 2 weeks ago.

2. We need to immediately shut down the industrial work camps in our region. These are essentially land locked cruise ships and need to be dealt with as we have done with far less risky aggregations of people and workers across the province and across the world. The camps are and will be COVID-19 incubators placing the workers, the host communities , and the home communities of the workers at unacceptable risk.

We in northern B.C. have the resiliency to manage and reduce the harm from this pandemic in collaboration with our health authority, but we need your help.

I wish you wellness and strength as you carry on with your immensely important work at this time, and I wish you the wisdom to allow the people who know and care for the communities in Northern BC to do the same.

With urgency and best regards,

David Bowering MD. MHSc.

Hazelton, B.C.

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