Health officials unfazed by study showing B.C. has eight times the reported number of COVID-19 cases

B.C. health officials are not alarmed by an academic study released July 13 that found the province has around eight times more COVID-19 infections than have been reported.

The study produced by the University of British Columbia, B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), LifeLabs and public health researchers found that there was a significant underreporting of actual cases of the virus that has caused a global pandemic, but that the rate of infections in B.C. was still below 1%.

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One of the study's authors, Danuta Skowronski, said at a July 16 press conference that instead of this being an alarming finding, it is one that British Columbians should be proud of.

"Bravo to British Columbians for successfully containing community transmission," said Skowronski, who is the epidemiology lead for influenza and emerging respiratory pathogens at the BCCDC.

"When we extrapolated our infection rate to the full population of B.C. to get an estimate of what was the true infection counts. Yes, like other areas, we found underreporting. No surveillance data are perfect, of course. But our level of underascertainment is comparable to other areas that have also checked this –typically in the range of 10- to 20-fold underascertainment in other [geographic] areas. Our estimate is in the same ball park."

Skowronski added that B.C.'s likely rate of eight times more COVID-19 infections than reported would still put it as having "amongst the lowest per capita case and death rates, not only in Canada but in North America."

There are 3,149 cases, 207 of them active, in B.C. as of July 15. Of those, there have been just 65 cases reported in the Northern Health region, which has not had an active case since early June.

B.C.'s provincial health officer, Bonnie Henry, said that the study's approach of testing random people who had no symptoms "is likely not going to be very helpful for us in the short term."

Instead, she favours targetting specific groups who are at high risk.

"There are more people who have this infection in our community than are represented by the people who actually had a test, and that is reflected in these numbers," she said. "This is an estimate and we see that everywhere, because you can’t possibly test everyone everywhere."

She and her team are focused more on making sure that anyone in B.C. who has any COVID-19 symptom, and that is defined broadly, has access to testing. The turnaround time for testing across the province is less than 24 hours.

Targetted testing has taken place after some community outbreaks, in affected workplaces and seniors' homes.

"Anytime there’s a case in a long-term care home, everyone gets tested whether they have symptoms or not," Henry said. "This [academic serology] survey supports that that is an effective strategy for us to use right now."

An update on the province's number of COVID-19 cases is expected later today.

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