B.C. record-breaking case load likely much higher amid testing challenges

As B.C. continues to break record daily COVID-19 infections, it’s likely the number of people sick with COVID-19 is much higher.

Over the three-day period from Friday — Christmas Eve — to Monday, there were 6,288 new cases recorded in B.C. The province did not provide details on new hospitalizations, deaths, or infections, saying that information would be ready on Wednesday.

The record cases recorded between Friday and Saturday (2,552) came after a fourth record-breaking day, for the period between Thursday and Friday, which saw 2,441 new infections.

However, given that B.C.’s testing capacity reached maximum capacity last week, health experts say daily figures that are currently being released only show part of the picture.

Sally Otto, a professor of zoology and COVID-19 modeller, says this is a challenge not just isolated to B.C.

“I think it’s a challenge across Canada. The numbers of Omicron have reached highs that we’ve never seen before and our testing facilities were just not geared up for the kinds of thousands of cases that we’re talking about today,” she told CityNews Tuesday.

While she’s not surprised the system is overwhelmed, she says she is a bit taken aback that there wasn’t a stronger contingency plan.

With cases already high, Otto estimates figures are likely actually higher, by even “another thousand or two” a day.

“We know that there’s severe under estimates,” she said.

“The reason for that is it’s the holidays, bad weather, some places were closed. They switched one site that was PCR in Vancouver to just rapid antigen test but the rapid antigen tests aren’t included.”

Otto says the model projections from the last couple of weeks would put B.C. at around 3,500 cases a day right now.

“Now there’s always wobbles, those projects could be off. But we know that we’re at the limits of what the testing program can measure,” she added.

Otto notes the symptoms people are mostly reporting with Omicron closely resemble cold symptoms, which could be why some people aren’t looking to get tested.

Testing sites overwhelmed

On Friday, the province urged British Columbians who are fully vaccinated and show mild symptoms of the virus to isolate for seven days, and not seek out a PCR test. The same is being asked of unvaccinated people with mild symptoms, though they are being told to isolate for 10 days.

“Our testing centres are at their maximum capacity. We did over 20,000 PCR tests yesterday, and that’s the maximum that we can do,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry explained Christmas Eve.

PCR tests are currently being prioritized for people 65 years and older, as well as people with underlying medical conditions. People who do not fall into either of those categories will likely be given a take-home rapid test if they seek out a PCR, Henry and health authorities have confirmed.

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, who is based out of Toronto, says the steps B.C. is taking makes sense given the situation in the province and system.

He agrees the number of people who have contracted COVID-19 is higher than what’s being reported.

“Case counts I think even before this issue were grossly underestimated, and that’s a Canada-wide issue, that’s not reflective of one individual spot. We know that there’s so many cases in the community and there are bottlenecks to testing that the daily case counts and seven-day average grossly underestimate the true burden of infection that there are everywhere,” he explained.

“But again, there are metrics that matter and many metrics matter — it’s contextualizing the metrics that’s really important. We have got to keep our eye — you know, of course we can’t ignore how many cases are there everyday or what the per cent positivity is — but we also have to look at other metrics as well, like out hospital capacity, our ICU capacity, deaths related to the virus.”

Despite questions around actual case numbers, Bogoch believes it’s still important to take what’s reported into account, adding the figures still play an important role.

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Many people had to wait for hours for a test last week as COVID-19 case numbers spiked, not just in B.C. but across Canada, amid the spread of Omicron.

While B.C. is still releasing daily case data and people who rapid test are told to report their results to the province, it’s unclear how long it takes for those results to be counted and reported.

The province has said that rapid test positive cases are not included in same-day updates.

To make matters worse, the extreme cold B.C. has been dealing with over the past few days has forced a number of testing sites to shutter.

A number of people have taken to social media and reached out to CityNews to complain about the government’s lack of communication. In some cases they’ve said testing appointments were cancelled and that they were not notified, only finding out when they arrived at the facility to see it closed.

Otto says it’s likely we’ll see a larger number of people affected by Omicron in the coming weeks and months.

She says it’s key for people to be diligent and scale back interactions where possible to slow or avoid infection.


Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to show Dr. Isaac Bogoch agrees the number of people who have contracted COVID-19 is higher, not lower, than what’s being reported.

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