A group of academics and policy experts say it’s time for British Columbia to mount a massive push to crush COVID-19 transmission to as close to zero as possible.
Since implementing province-wide restrictions in November, B.C. has managed to halve its daily case count from a high of almost 950 to an average of under 500.
But in recent weeks that progress has plateaued.
It’s prompted a call for B.C. to buy into a strategy called the “Canadian Shield,” which would seek to rapidly push new cases downward, while marshalling whatever resources are necessary to stamp out new, more contagious COVID-19 variants.
“If you’re not winning, if you’re not sustaining declines week over week, you are losing and inevitably you’re going to be faced with a nasty third wave,” Robert Greenhill, professor of practice at McGill University and co-founder of COVID Strategic Choices Group, told Global News.
“B.C. is kind of at that pivotal moment where it’s not going up yet, but it’s not going down. And so now’s the time to make that extra push to achieve those sustained declines.”
The group is pushing for a near-zero strategy, recognizing that completely stopping transmission will be impossible until vaccines are fully deployed in Canada.
Its recommendations include possible lockdowns, banning all but essential international travel, significantly boosting testing for COVID variants, and mass vaccination of truckers.
In B.C.’s case, stricter lockdowns may not be needed, Greenhill said, so long as the province could maintain a 20 per cent week-over week drop in new cases.
A pan-Canadian buy-in to the approach is preferable, he said, but B.C. is fully capable of going it alone if it is willing to put restrictions on inter-provincial travel.
Caroline Coljin, a member of the group and SFU Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Evolution, Infection and Public Health, said it’s clear the current strategy of containment is not working.
She argued B.C. can get to a near-zero situation through a combination of rapid testing, implementing new restrictions, easing reopening and providing economic support to those affected.
“What’s the end game, how (are we) going to get between where we are now and back to a more normal life without doing these kind of temporary … shutdowns and then relaxing them and trying to reopen, and then finding that, oh, my goodness, we’ve had transmission,” she said.
“Which is very unpredictable and I think really hard for people in parts of the economy.”
Coljin acknowledged that the strategy wouldn’t be easy, and would involve short-term sacrifice on the part of individuals along with concerted government action.
But the short-term pain would be worth it once case numbers dropped low enough for people to resume many of their regular daily activities, she argued, allowing businesses to have confidence they can remain open.
She said the province could learn from experience getting close to near-zero last summer, when “wishful thinking” allowed things to get back out of control.
Greenhill said the Canadian Shield strategy follows success in the so-called TAZNAC jurisdictions, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and Northern and Atlantic Canada, which have seen great success in suppressing the virus.
“They’ve done better from a health perspective, they’ve done better economically, they’ve also done better from an individual liberties point of view,” he said.
“For the Australian Open taking place next week, they’re going to have 30,000 people a day. That’s the kind of situation we want to see in Canada.”
The alternative of pushing numbers downward, he argued, was a U.K.-type situation, with an economically devastating third wave.
B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry rejected a move towards a COVID-zero strategy on Friday, arguing the goal was beyond the province’s resources.
“(It) is likely not a reality for a jurisdiction such as ours where we have so many land, borders and ways that people move in and out through this province,” Henry said.
“Particularly our biggest risk continues continues to be from the United States and the people who move back and forth across our borders from the U.S. And that is a reality of where we are geographically in the world and where we are in our social economic interactions.”
While the ability to get to absolute zero might be impossible, Greenhill argued, moving decisively in that direction is not.
Getting the U.K. and South African variants to zero is well within the provinces grasp, he added.
“Is (COVID-zero) or full eradication possible? Probably not, for the reasons she said,” he said.
“Is near-zero possible, where we get down to only one or two cases per million people per day? That’s possible. And is that superior? Yes, absolutely.”