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Behind the scenes of B.C.’s first COVID-19 superspreader, two years ago

Documents highlight confusion before officials discovered attendee at Pacific Dental Conference had coronavirus, leading to dozens of infections and one death.
The Pacific Dental Conference drew close to 15,000 people to the Vancouver Convention Centre at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in B.C. in March 2020

The 2020 Pacific Dental Conference was British Columbia’s first “superspreader” event of COVID-19.

But before public health officials and organizers realized an attendee had been infected, confusion and miscommunication had been spreading, according to documents obtained under freedom of information.

The March 5-7, 2020, Vancouver Convention Centre event registered almost 15,000 people and generated at least 87 documented cases of the novel coronavirus and led to one death, North Vancouver dentist Denis Vincent. The conference is happening for a second year online, March 14-April 12. Organizers hope to return to the three-day, in-person format in March 2023.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters after the March 12, 2020, exposure alert that she had not been consulted, nor was she aware of the conference – despite co-headlining a pandemic plan news conference upstairs in a Pan Pacific Hotel meeting room on the second day with Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix. 

B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (VCH) did not conduct a risk assessment. BCCDC was, however, concerned with ensuring that its Dr. David Patrick could add a 10-minute COVID-19 “recommendations and guidance” segment to his late-morning keynote speech on March 6, 2020.

An ominous Facebook post, in the Vancouver Dental Professionals group, circulated on March 11, 2020. It said a technician from Richmond dental equipment supplier Patterson had been asked to self-quarantine after someone with coronavirus had visited the company’s booth.

Documents released under freedom of information law show Jocelyn Johnston, the B.C. Dental Association executive director, emailed the conference’s manager, Shannon Brown, and VCH medical health officer Dr. John Harding on March 11 about the Facebook post: “Yes, it is this bad… in the last 2 minutes I got a text and another 2 emails.”

“The affected attendee was onsite in the West building on March 6 from 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., and spent a majority of their time at an exhibitor booth on the trade show floor,” wrote convention centre general manager Craig Lehto in a memo to staff. “VCH has advised that the individual is recovering at home and there is no ongoing risk to the community, nor is there any further risk posed at the Vancouver Convention Centre. We have also confirmed with VCH that our enhanced cleaning and sanitations measures that have been used at the facility both during and following the conference are considered appropriate.”

Conference participants were told to self-monitor for fever, cough, headache or shortness of breath for 14 days. In a March 16 memo, B.C. Dental Association president Dr. James Singer wrote that the BCDA had consulted with the Provincial Health Services Authority about the conference on Feb. 24, and “at no time was the PDC asked by any public health representatives to halt the conference.”

The only evidence of consultation that was released in the FOI file was a Feb. 24 email from the director of the PHSA’s Provincial Infection Control Network of B.C. PICNET. She also sent her message to the Health Emergency Coordination Centre in the Ministry of Health.

“I’m sure this is one of many conference/meeting gatherings but we thought it was worth noting,” Tamara Leigh Donovan wrote. “Majority of attendees are coming from across Canada and the Pacific Coast of North America with other smaller numbers from Europe. This may be of interest to Bonnie [Henry] and others.”

Brian Sagar, the senior director of communicable disease in the Ministry of Health, responded with a link to the Vancouver Convention Centre schedule and a remark: “Lots of big group gatherings in Vancouver in the coming months!!!”

The full extent of the superspreader is not publicly known. VCH refused to release the anonymized contact tracing report. In June 2020, Henry called it a “sentinel event” and Dix said in late-2020 interviews that he regretted not cancelling the conference.

Research published in the journal Science estimates a whopping 300,000 COVID-19 cases around the world stemmed from a Boston biotech company’s management conference in late February 2020. A hundred of the 175 attendees of the Biogen meeting at the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel took ill.

On March 8, 2020, the day after the conference ended, B.C. recorded its first death from the virus, a man in his 80s at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver. The World Health Organization declared a pandemic emergency three days later. The following week, the B.C. NDP government declared a provincial state of emergency. In B.C., officials have reported 2,896 deaths through March 3, 2022.

A December 2020 contribution to the British Dental Journal about modelling and pandemic planning by Mark-Steven Howe, included the Pacific Dental Conference in its footnotes.

“In conclusion, if we are to manage extreme emergencies such as future pandemics, we need more open channels of communication and understanding. If leadership is to be successful, it needs to both listen to and understand the limitations of emerging science and modelling, but also effectively appraise the evidence as it develops on the ground,” Howe wrote.