Long-term care outbreaks account for 40% of COVID-19 deaths in B.C. this month, Henry says

Roughly 40 per cent of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 in B.C. this month have been associated with outbreaks in long-term care homes, according to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

Henry addressed the recent surge in deaths - which has included the highest single-day death toll in more than a year - during a news conference on Friday. 

Asked who has been dying in the province during the Omicron wave of the pandemic, the provincial health officer called COVID-19-related deaths "a tragedy," but also emphasized the factors that put people at greater risk of serious complications from the disease.

"It is something that we've been watching and measuring in a way that we don't for many other illnesses," Henry said of the COVID-19 death rate in the province.

"So yes, about 40 per cent of the people who've died in this month have been related to outbreaks in long-term care. Most of the people who are dying outside of those outbreaks are older people with underlying illnesses. A high proportion of them are people who don't have the protection from vaccination."

Younger people who have died from COVID-19 in recent weeks - including two people in their 40s - have been unvaccinated, Henry said, adding that some of the deaths among younger people have been seen in those hospitalized with the Delta variant for an extended period of time.

OUTBREAK CRITERIA BEING REVIEWED

Exactly how many deaths in long-term care homes have been attributed to COVID-19 during the Omicron wave is unclear, because the province is in the process of changing its outbreak criteria.

This means that there are some care homes in the province that have seen staff members and residents contract the coronavirus, but have not had outbreaks declared.

CTV News reached out to the Ministry of Health to ask for more information about the criteria for declaring an outbreak, as well as statistics on cases in long-term care that are not associated with a declared outbreak.

"Outbreak management protocols are currently under revision," the ministry said in an emailed statement.

"As has been the case all along, the declaration of an outbreak is made by the (medical health officer) and addresses the unique situation at each care home. We expect to provide more details about this during next Tuesday’s briefing."

The ministry also referred to Henry's comments from a news conference on Jan. 25, during which the provincial health officer said:

“Our long-term care and assisted living facilities have seen a sharp increase in cases and our seniors and elders continue to bear the significant burden from this virus. This has not changed in terms of people becoming ill. However, the high rate of immunization and the high rate of booster doses that we're seeing amongst our seniors in long-term care and among staff means we're having a much lower rate of severe illness in long-term care and assisted living homes and, thankfully, a much-reduced risk of things like death."

The ministry's response did not address the questions CTV News asked about case and death counts in long-term care homes where outbreaks have not been declared. A spokesperson said Friday that the ministry was working on responses to those questions. This story will be updated if a response is received.

OUTBREAK STATISTICS

The most recent data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control shows 48 declared outbreaks in long-term care and assisted-living facilities in the province that were active as of Jan. 25, plus an additional 21 outbreaks declared over in the week leading up to the latest report. 

The earliest of those 69 outbreaks was declared on Dec. 26, meaning the 43 total deaths shown in the data occurred between that date and Jan. 25.

Daily COVID-19 updates from the province between Dec. 26 and Jan. 25 show a total of 139 COVID-19-related deaths reported across B.C. Notably, there were 21 deaths reported on Jan. 26 and 13 on Jan. 27 that are not included in that total.

The BCCDC data suggests that, during the roughly one-month span in question, 31 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the province were associated with declared care home outbreaks. That figure aligns fairly well with the 40 per cent for the month of January that Henry shared Friday.

Statistics on declared outbreaks in the province right now also compare favourably to statistics on care home deaths from earlier waves, when vaccination was just becoming available.

Of the 69 outbreaks in the latest BCCDC report, 20 of them had any deaths associated with them, and the rest did not. That means less than one-third of outbreaks in B.C. over the last month have turned fatal.

In January 2021, by comparison, roughly two-thirds of declared outbreaks had deaths, and the overall numbers of cases and deaths associated with outbreaks were significantly higher than they are currently. 

In her comments Friday, Henry reiterated that Omicron is causing mild illness in long-term care because of high rates of vaccination and booster doses, and seemed to suggest that the latest deaths in care homes may not be the direct result of COVID-19 infection.

"We're seeing very mild illness, but we count everybody who has a positive COVID test and dies within 30 days of that test as being (a COVID-related death)," Henry said. "We've always recognized that COVID could play a role in those people's deaths, unfortunately."