Early testing helps Canada's British Columbia fight coronavirus, cases elsewhere soar

WINNIPEG, Manitoba/TORONTO (Reuters) - The Canadian province of British Columbia is flattening the curve of coronavirus infections, thanks to aggressive early testing and a bit of luck, even as cases elsewhere in the country soar.

FILE PHOTO: A resident of the Oppenheimer Park homeless encampment wears a protective face mask at a communal washing area, as the number of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases continues to grow in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Jesse Winter/File Photo

The Pacific coast province recorded Canada’s first death from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, and its first case of community transmission. It shares the U.S.-Canada border with Washington state, where the first major outbreak in America occurred.

The province of 5 million people reported 45 new cases on Wednesday, half of the peak of 92 cases recorded on March 28, and extending a week of low, flat results.

“Part of (B.C.’s success) was our early testing strategy, having a very wide net for testing, part of it is preparedness, part of it is timing,” Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, who coordinated Toronto’s response to the 2003 SARS outbreak, told reporters this week.

“Part of it is, frankly, luck.”

The timing of the provincial mid-March school spring break, when many families travel, weeks later than in Ontario and Quebec, was a big factor. The government began warning people not to travel, before Ontario and Quebec did so, and said schools would not reopen immediately after spring break.

By then, the province was aggressively testing, with results turned around within 24 hours rather than multiple days as in Ontario. It was also able to avoid a testing backlog by sourcing key chemical reagents for test kits within the province, said Stephen Hoption Cann, a public health professor at the University of British Columbia.

B.C. has conducted about 8,700 tests per million people, compared with 5,900 in Ontario, according to Canadian government data.

British Columbia’s infection rate of 26 per 100,000 is less than one quarter that of Quebec, the country’s epicenter, and below the rates of two other populous provinces, Ontario and Alberta.

B.C. had 135 cases of infected people in hospital as of Wednesday, compared with over 600 in Quebec, and its 48 deaths amount to less than one-third the totals in either Ontario or Quebec.

“There is no debate, (B.C. has) gone past that apex point and they’re seeing flattening of the curve,” said Jason Kindrachuk, a University of Manitoba assistant professor in microbiology.

Southern B.C. is warmer and wetter than most of Canada, but it is unclear whether those conditions limited the spread, he said.

Despite the province’s relative success, people appear to be maintaining social distancing rules.

“There’s a sense of, ‘is this the calm before the storm?’” said Devan Wiebe, a Vancouver runner training for the recently postponed Tokyo Olympics, who no longer runs with teammates. “I definitely don’t think the danger has passed.”

Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba and Moira Warburton in Toronto; Editing by Tom Brown