A sign board in Toronto displays the TSX close on Monday, March 16, 2020. (Frank Gunn - The Canadian Press)

LETTER: Vernon oncologist urges public to ‘hold the line’

Doctor says we all must do our part amid COVID-19 pandemic despite economic impact

To the editor:

I am a BC Cancer medical oncologist based in Vernon at the McMurtry and Baerg Cancer Centre in the Vernon Jubilee Hospital. The comments in this article represent my opinion, not that of BC Cancer or the Department of Medicine at the Vernon Jubilee.

Recently there was an article published based on public comments made by a local politician that suggested the cure was worse than the virus.

Nothing could be further from the truth and those comments have the potential to have devastating consequences at a very critical point in the fight against this merciless disease.

We need everyone on board, including our politicians, with “holding the line” or we will suffer what has been repeated over and over across the globe.

Business as usual is just not an option right now. It is not as simple as locking down the elderly and vulnerable and letting the virus run its course.

Hospital and ICU capacity is already approaching critical levels in parts of the country where COVID-19 is accelerating. Almost 40 per cent of both hospitalized and ICU patients in Canada are under 60 years of age.

A woman in her 20s died in Alberta last week.

A six week old has died of COVID-19 in the United States.

These are tragedies and they will become all too frequent in the coming weeks if we do not all do our part.

I am certainly worried about protecting my oncology patients, of all ages.

I am also worried about my colleagues, family and healthy people too.

We cannot afford to repeat what has happened in Wuhan, Iran, Italy, France, Spain, UK and New York, and what looks inevitable in many other locations around the globe. We haven’t even begun to have a handle of the indirect lives lost to this disease (i.e. the patient who dies of a heart attack because the ambulance doesn’t come in time).

Please do not put us in the position where we have to choose who gets a ventilator and who does not. No one should ever have to make that choice.

Please do not put us in the position where our hospital is overwhelmed and we burn through our personal protective equipment until it becomes inadequate and unsafe.

There was a suggestion we should follow Sweden.

Sweden is now looking at bringing in more restrictive legislation as the case load and death toll has started to inevitably accelerate ahead of other Scandinavian countries.

Two weeks ago, Norway, which has undertaken more restrictive measures, had more reported cases (1,959 cases March 20, 2020) than Sweden (1,639 cases March 20, 2020). Fast track two weeks, Sweden is seeing a surge in new cases per day, deaths per day and total COVID-19 deaths are more than five times its Scandinavian neighbour.

Now it is being forced to implement measures that will undoubtedly be detrimental to its economy. But it will do so with a larger death toll because of the delay. Norway’s curve is flattening — which economy will fare better when we get through this pandemic? I would bet on Norway. History will be the ultimate judge.

If it is inevitable that economic sacrifices are necessary to combat this pandemic, it is better to make those tough decisions earlier.

Essentially, the best thing we can do for our economy is any measure which lowers the viral reproductive number below one.

That basically occurs when there are more recoveries than new cases and the active case load falls. As Austin Goolsbee, University of Chicago economist, succinctly put it: “anything that slows the rate of the virus is the best thing you can do for the economy, even if by conventional measures it’s bad for the economy.”

The recent numbers and trends, at least in British Columbia, should give us hope. This should implore us to continue to be vigilant. It is not the time to let down our guard. That only risks doing more harm to the economy by protracting the epidemic in BC.

We will get through this and when we do we will get our economy firing on all cylinders. We will get the children back to school. We will open up the parks, theatres and arenas. We will get people’s hips replaced and hernias repaired. We will invest in pandemic planning and mitigation strategies to better prepare us for the next pandemic. It will not be without cost, the most precious of which will be measured in lives. The magnitude of that cost will depend our actions now.

“We are in the thick of it, and we must hold our line.” — Dr Bonnie Henry.

Do your part. Take social distancing seriously. Do more than your part if you can. Please stay home.

Dr. Michael Humphreys, M.D., F.R.C.P.C.

Vernon, B.C.


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