BC’s pandemic budget may “wind down” in 2024

Advocates are concerned about the provincial plan for COVID-19 funding

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This is a photo of a person wearing a mask. The photo is taken very close to their face, so only the mask can be seen.
PHOTO: Charlotte May / Pexels

Editor’s note: A previous version of this piece misspelled Dr. Karina Zeidler’s last name as “Zeilder,” but has now been corrected. 

By: Michelle Young, Opinions Editor

BC’s budget and fiscal report covers a “three year fiscal plan” for housing, sustainability, and healthcare. The report states, “As the funding for pandemic contingencies are set to wind down by the end of 2023/24, it is anticipated that the Ministry of Health will wind down or integrate any services into ministry operations, as appropriate, to support the ongoing health and well-being of British Columbians.” 

The report did not elaborate, and The Peak reached out to the Ministry of Health for more information, who said they “will have an update to share following the release of the 2024/25 budget at the end of next month.” 

DoNoHarm BC, who advocates for safer COVID-19 protections in the province, is concerned about the effects a potential budget cut could have for residents and provides a series of recommendations. 

Dr. Karina Zeidler and E.S. Lee, members of DoNoHarm BC, spoke to The Peak for more information. “In principle, I support integrating COVID-19 measures as a fundamental part of programs and services, rather than as a temporary response measure. But I don’t see how that happens effectively if BC cuts all the funding,” Lee explained. “If our government has a plan to ensure proper continuity, I’d be thrilled to see it. It’s not promising that Interior Health now directs symptomatic healthcare workers not to test themselves for COVID, even as BC encourages healthcare workers to work with respiratory symptoms,” Lee added.

Their recommendations include renewing “a three year-plan for economic recovery,” creating “a Clean Indoor Air Act with an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) advisory council,” and adding more support for people with Long COVID and “complex chronic illnesses.” DoNoHarm BC noted their concerns around the provincial budget come at a time where “fluctuating COVID levels, new variants, fall/winter disease surges, and hospital outbreaks underscore the need for ongoing health management.” COVID-19 continues to circulate, with hospitalizations for respiratory illness reaching an all-time high in early January “since the start of the pandemic,” according to The Globe and Mail

“By continuing to fund things like vaccination and testing, making PPE more accessible, and cleaning the air we share, we’re supporting better health for all British Columbians — not just people who can afford it,” Zeidler said. 

“I hate to frame human tragedies in purely financial terms, but since we’re talking budget, we need to face the fact that widespread sickness incurs massive costs,” Lee said, noting that “absences from illness” puts a strain on workers, creates labour shortages, and Long COVID “threatens to take a far bigger economic toll.” An estimated one in nine adults in Canada “have experienced long-term symptoms from a COVID-19 infection,” with the majority of these symptoms persisting for months or years. According to Statistics Canada, 66% of patients “reported not receiving adequate treatment, service, or support for any of their symptoms.” Earlier this year, BC closed its in-person Long COVID clinics, but hasn’t implemented a long-term solution for patients who need care. Due to the complex nature of Long COVID, which can damage multiple organs and the vascular system, many patients require in-person assessments and testing, explained Zeidler.  

“Canada’s Office of the Chief Science Officer issued recommendations that included everything from creating standardized assessments and clinical practice guidelines, to developing diagnostic codes for Long COVID, to scaling up prevention strategies like clean air while raising awareness with the public. We already know what needs to be done. Now, policy-makers need to do it,” Lee said. 

Prevention strategies focus on the prevention of COVID-19 infections and the reduction of transmission, as any infection can lead to Long COVID and negative health outcomes, and the risk is multiplied with each infection. Vaccination and general health alone does not significantly reduce risk of Long COVID. Prevention focuses on “clean air,” which refers to increased ventilation and filtration to lower the concentration of COVID-19, which is airborne. Prevention strategies also include safety measures like universal masking and systemic support for those infected to stay home and isolate. 

“When it comes to public health costs, the numbers speak for themselves. Research shows clean air can reduce illness at a benefit-cost ratio of up to 100 to 1. Tools like N95 masks are cheap and effective — meanwhile, an average hospital stay for COVID costs $23,000” for hospitals, Zeidler added.

“Without evidence-based COVID prevention we have more hospitalizations, and prolonged stays with higher morbidity and mortality due to hospital-acquired infections. More healthcare workers get sick, some for prolonged periods and some who do not recover enough to return, which adds to critical staffing shortages. On top of that, unchecked COVID spread drives the evolution of the virus and can create dangerous new variants — something our own government has identified as one of BC’s main fiscal risks,” she added.

Further, DoNoHarm BC explained that COVID-19 is intricately tied to concerns surrounding equity: “Although everyone is at risk from COVID and Long COVID, SARS-CoV-2 disproportionately harms people who already experience systemic barriers.

“We know the pandemic continues to hit low-income neighbourhoods the hardest. We know BIPOC communities face worse outcomes, as do elders, disabled people, pregnant people, unhoused people, immigrants, and essential workers among others. Long COVID rates are also higher in BIPOC, as well as for women and gender minorities — in fact, trans people have the highest rates of Long COVID,” Zeidler explained. “Unchecked COVID spread causes more marginalization. Without clean air and consistent safety practices, public spaces exclude many immunocompromised and high-risk people. COVID itself causes long-term health damage and disability — and forces many people into poverty due to job loss and soaring medical costs,” Lee added. 

“It’s nothing short of shocking that our government wants to ‘wind down’ its already minimal public health programs for SARS-CoV-2. We need to make decisions based on the data — and that means addressing COVID, because COVID is still here. Public health shouldn’t be more focused on saving money than saving lives,” Zeidler said. 

DoNoHarm BC encourages anyone who is concerned “about sustainable community health in 2024” to email their MLA.

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