Vancouver Island health care professionals are warning about a serious virus headed our way. Fortunately, there’s a vaccine.
Vancouver Island health care professionals are warning about a serious virus predicted to hit the Comox Valley in just a few weeks. The disease will hospitalize many and in some cases threaten the lives of those most vulnerable.
Fortunately, the Comox Valley Public Health Unit has a vaccine that can protect against the disease, and prevent its spread throughout the community.
It’s called the ‘flu shot.
North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns said her offices started distributing the vaccine in October to Comox Valley medical offices and pharmacies, where most people get their annual vaccinations. And more people are getting them this year, probably due to a particularly bad epidemic last year.
Enns said the health unit had distributed more doses in the North Island by the end of last week — 35,000 — than it had last year in total. That mirrors Island-wide figures: 218,000 doses distributed so far this year, compared with a total of 225,000 during the 2017-2018 season.
But even this year’s upward trend in vaccinations isn’t enough, Enns told Decafnation. Only about 29 percent of the total Island population was vaccinated last year.
“The higher the vaccination percentage, the less likely the virus will spread,” Enns said. “We call it herd immunity. The vaccine protects those most at risk, and lessens the chance in others of transmitting it.”
The concept of herd immunity is how the world has eradicated major killer diseases. Vaccines have eliminated smallpox, which killed more than 500 million people, and has nearly vanquished polio. When more people get immunized, the risk factor diminishes for everyone. And that reduces the cost to the public health health care system.
The purpose of providing ‘flu vaccine is to reduce the likelihood of severe complications and death from influenza
Enns said those most at risk at the elderly and the very young. About 3,500 Canadians died last year, including several on Vancouver Island, from complications caused by influenza, such as heart attacks and pneumonia.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that the risk of heart attacks jumped by 600 percent within the first days of an influenza infection.
Enns said public health can only estimate the number of deaths and hospitalizations caused by influenza, because it isn’t the disease itself that kills. The virus causes inflammation in the body, so the arteries in someone with heart disease close up more and trigger a heart attack or stroke.
The danger is similar for people with chronic respiratory conditions, such as asthma, or with kidney issues.
The University of Toronto study, which examined 20,000 patients with confirmed influenza, also found that the ‘flu shot reduced the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 20 percent, and infected people were less likely to be hospitalized.
About 538 people were hospitalized with confirmed cases of influenza on Vancouver island last year. But the number is probably many times higher because infected people don’t often get formally diagnosed.
Because the influenza virus mutates frequently, the Canadian Centre for Disease Control produces a new vaccine every year based on estimates of those mutations. As a result, the vaccine is usually between 60 percent and 70 percent effective.
“But it’s a good as we’ve got,” Enns said. “People who’ve had the ‘flu shot won’t get as sick and especially the most vulnerable. The purpose of providing ‘flu vaccine is to reduce the likelihood of severe complications and death from influenza.”
Some of the most vulnerable are frail seniors resident on long-term care facilities, due to their age and the probability of having health issues.
Enns said that makes it more important for those who care for them and visit them to get vaccinated and mount up their own immunity.
A cold weather virus
Medical professionals have puzzled over why influenza virus strikes hardest every year from November through March. Some theories suggested the short days and lack of sunshine, causing a vitamin D deficiency. Others theorized that people are crowded together indoors.
But most health professional now accept the conclusions of a 2007 study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York: cold, dry weather keeps the virus more stable and stays in the air longer.
‘Flu season in Canada starts in the eastern provinces and moves west as temperatures drop. Calgary has already been hit hard, with 510 confirmed cases since August.
In southern latitudes, the main ‘flu season runs from May until September. In the tropics, there is no real ‘flu season.
Why you should get the ‘flu shot
The ‘flu vaccine is our best defense against the virus and will not only protect you, but also the people you know and love.
–You can’t get the ‘flu from the ‘flu shot. It’s impossible. The viruses used to make the flu shot are dead. The worst side effect is a sore arm.
— It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to fully mount your immunity, so it’s best to get the shot early.
–Healthy people need to get a flu shot to protect people at risk and those who are not eligible. Newborn babies and adults with abnormally weak immune systems usually can’t get ‘flu shots. Their only protection comes from others getting the shot, and keeping the spread of ‘flu to a minimum.
— Influenza is a more serious infection than you may realize. It will exacerbate any underlying health conditions you already have, and may cause new problems, which for some can be deadly.
— It’s hard not to qualify for a publicly-funded (read: free) vaccination.
A former Comox Valley resident who now lives in New Zealand, which uses the mixed-member version of proportional representation, answers three common arguments against voting in favor of electoral reform in BC
A few readers have criticized Decafnation recently because we have not examined the arguments against changing our electoral system to proportional representation, the main question in the current provincial referendum.
So, we visited the “No to ProRep” website to understand the rationale behind sticking with the current system of First Past The Post.
We discovered that the No side does not extol the virtues of the current system that gives 100 percent of the power to a single party that may only get 30 percent to 40 percent of the votes. The No side website is singularly focused on reasons why proportional representation isn’t a good choice.
We put the “No to ProRep” arguments to Katie Betanzo, a high school teacher in New Zealand who grew up in the Comox Valley and graduated from G.P. Vanier. Betanzo lived in in British Columbia under FPTP and now lives in New Zealand under the mixed-member version of proportional representation.
Decafnation: One of the No side’s arguments is that “the most populated city will decide everything for all of BC. PR will lead to a Vancouver-centric government that only cares about Vancouver issues.” In other words, the No side argues the political power base will move to the largest urban areas and smaller, rural communities will lose influence in the government. Has that been your experience in New Zealand?
Katie Betanzo: I have to say, this is not an issue I have heard much about here. I suppose it’s arguable that, under our system of MMP, most of our ‘list’ MPs come from urban centres rather than rural areas, but it’s just as likely that a rural electorate winds up with effectively two MPs working for them, for instance West Coast –Tasman, with a Labour electorate MP and a National list MP based in the area.
The thing about proportional representation, though, it’s proportional. Every few years we redraw electorate boundaries so that there are roughly the same number of people in each electorate. So, of course, rural electorates are physically very big – but they represent the same number of voters as a relatively ‘small’ urban electorate. The balance of power does come from the cities, but that’s where the bulk of people live. So it makes sense.
Our situation normal is two large parties – centre left and centre right – supported in a coalition government by at least one small ‘extreme fringe’ party and one small centrist party. It tends to balance out.
Historically, our electorates were unbalanced in favour of rural areas. Urban electorates had 28 percent larger populations than rural ones, giving rural electorates a disproportionate amount of power.
One thing to note, though, is that we have a party which was founded since the introduction of PR that has a focus on the regions (rural areas). Because of PR, that party consistently winds up in parliament and at the moment are in government – part of the coalition. So we have both a properly representative and proportionate government, and also a strong pro-rural voice in government.
We also have a certain number of seats for Māori, our indigenous people, who are more likely than the general population to live in rural areas. Māori can chose to vote in either a general or a Māori electorate, but this ensures a strong voice for indigenous issues in central government. These seats date back to 1867.
Decafnation: The No website also claims that under PR, “the rise of backroom deals and political posturing is inevitable.” Does this happen in New Zealand?
Betanzo:: I suppose this is a concern and it does get thrown around from time to time, but it’s almost never proven — certainly no more prevalent than under FPTP. If anything, having to work together with at least one other party in government tends to keep parties honest.
The closest I can think of is some past manoeuvring by a right-wing party to ensure that another, very small right-wing party won an electorate seat (the larger party did not stand a candidate in the electorate), and thus would bring two MPs into Parliament under our MMP rules. This was widely held to be a corrupt practice and created quite a scandal.
As for any type of cronyism or nepotism – it doesn’t happen – not more than under FPTP.
Decafnation:: And last, anti-Pro-Rep people say the system gives the balance of power to extreme fringe parties on the right or the left. They say PR allows “extremist parties to have a say.” Has that happened in NZ?
Betanzo: In theory, it is possible that an extreme fringe party could sway a government (the tail wagging the dog). But in theory, it is also possible that an extreme and vocal faction within a larger party could sway that party’s policies. (That happened here when a small group within a socialist party drove their neoliberal economic agenda through into law.)
I’ve done a far bit of research, and the most common mention of the “tail wagging the dog” or “unpopular legislation” is in the context of people complaining about proportional rep. It’s a myth. There are a few examples of small parties using their leverage to get bills introduced to parliament, but once the bill is before the house it has to pass the same scrutiny as any other legislation.
Our situation normal is two large parties – centre left and centre right – supported in a coalition government by at least one small ‘extreme fringe’ party and one small centrist party. It tends to balance out.
Once or twice a far left or right party has managed to tug a government a bit further to the left or right, but nothing like the myth of the country being held hostage by an extreme fringe party.
Critical long-term wastewater infrastructure questions are being asked at the CVRD, among them: Should sewer pipes come out of the K’omoks Estuary? What level of treatment do we want, and how will we meet the long-term growth of the Comox Valley? And, should we be planning to recover our wastewater resource?
This article was updated Nov. 9
Just over a year ago, the Comox Valley Regional District stepped back from plans to patch the existing sewer service, which serves only Courtenay and Comox, and take time to consider how best to meet the long-term needs of a growing Comox Valley population.
That process got underway this summer with public consultations that have included in-person meetings, an online survey and two open houses held this week at the treatment plant.
Planning is focused on three main areas:
First, how best to collect and convey wastewater to the Comox Valley Water Pollution Control Centre on Brent Road, near Point Holmes.
The main pipe carrying sewage from the Courtenay #1 pump station next to Kus-kus-sum site on Comox Road, currently runs through the K’omoks Estuary and Comox Harbor, under Goose Spit and along the beach below the Willemar Bluffs before turning inland a short distance to the Brent Road plant.
CVRD engineers and an Public Advisory Committee will consider other options for moving wastewater to the treatment plant, including overland routes that would reduce risk to the K’omoks Estuary. The committee includes eight public members, plus three elected officials and representatives from industry and stewardship sectors.
Lyle Deines, a CVRD treatment plant employee, explains how the laboratory tests for such things as aerobic bacteria that degrade pollutants and the cleanliness of the discharged effluent
Second, what level of treatment should be provided at the treatment plant now, and a long-term plan for meeting both evolving land-use planning standards and the needs of geographical areas beyond the boundaries of Courtenay and Comox.
The existing plant meets or exceeds all provincial and federal standards, but does not provide tertiary level treatment. It doesn’t directly treat for nitrogen, pharmaceuticals or heavy metals.
Nor does it treat wastewater to a standard that can be safely used for agricultural irrigation, golf courses or other non-potable uses, such as groundwater reinjection.
Some communities around North America and elsewhere already treat wastewater to a level that it is directly re-introduced into their drinking water systems.
FURTHER READING: Make your voice heard through the CVRD online survey, see who’s on the Public Advisory Committee and other information
Third, how to incorporate resource recovery options, and its cost, into this long-term planning process.
For example, if upgrades to the treatment plant produced effluent safe for agricultural uses and a new, overland conveyance route was chosen, a new pipe carrying the highly cleaned wastewater could be laid at the same time back to the Courtenay #1 pump station.
Plant employee Colin Packham, in the top photo, shows the new odour control lids on the clarifier tanks, as Area B Director-Elect Arzeena Hamir listens; and, above, center, shows the centrifuges that take the water out of the sludge
Interesting wastewater facts
During this week’s open houses, employees of the treatment plant toured dozens of citizens through the facility. Here’s a random collection of facts and observations from one of those tours.
— The CVRD spent about $2 million retrofitting the plant to mitigate the odour problems that have plagued nearby residents for decades. Permanent covers over the primary clarifiers and a high-tech activated carbon polisher have reduced odours.
But when major community events, such as MusicFest, occur and the volume of waste dumped into the system via septic pumping trucks, the density of the sewage can create a spike in odours. For that reason, these volumes are held and processed during the nighttime when regular residential flows have diminished.
–In the summer months, it takes about 24 hours for sewage to travel from the Courtenay #1 pump station to the treatment plant. But in the winter, when rain water infiltrates the sewer lines, it flushes through much faster, in about 8 hours.
— It takes about one day for wastewater entering the treatment plant to exit to the Point Holmes outfall.
— Effluent travels via gravity only from the treatment plant to the outfall, which is located at the sharp curve in Lazo Road up the Point Holmes hill. The outfall extends 3 km at a 45-degree angle into the Strait of Georgia and terminates at a depth of 60 metres.
— The treatment plant was designed in 1983 and has a permitted maximum daily discharge of 18,000 cubic meters of wastewater per day, and averages about 14,000 cubic meters. The daily average goes down to about 12,000 cubic meters in the summer. In the mid-2000s, the plant started to exceed its maximum daily discharge during peak wet weather events, and now exceed the permitted discharge approximately 30 times per year. Those numbers are reported to the Ministry of Environment.
Wastewater coming into the plant, left, and the discharged effluent on the right
But in the winter, the volume of wastewater flowing through the plant reaches more than 40,000 cubic meters per day. The increase, which is more than three times the summer average, is due to rain water from winter storms infiltrating the system.
— The treatment plant has a laboratory where testing occurs daily for the quality of effluent leaving the plant, the heaviness of solids entering and the population of aerobic bacteria present during the aeration process that degrade the pollutants for their growth and reproduction.
— The first step in treatment process screens out all the rags, paper, plastic and metals that have been flushed into the sewage pipes. The plant removes a full dumpster load every week.
— Not all solids are removed from the wastewater before it’s discharged into the Strait of Georgia, but most of it. About 3,000 kg of solids enter the plant every day. The discharged effluent contains about 75 kg per day.
Relational voting takes democracy back to the citizen level
By CHRIS HILLIAR
Two weeks ago I signed up as a recruiter with Dogwood to help get out the Yes vote to support proportional representation in the BC referendum. The strategy being used by Dogwood is intriguing and I wanted to know more about it and about the local person driving it.
I sat down to speak with Dave Mills. He’s the Deputy Director of Organizing at Dogwood. He has a degree in Science from the University of Victoria, and a 25-year career in resource management and public services. “Dogwood”, he said, “first became well known in BC when they created the “no tanker” loonie sticker – a simple statement of resistance you could paste on the back of our dollar. It was a simple tactic that got under the government’s skin, rallied supporters and put the public on notice. The group continues to be creative and their work promoting Pro Rep is a good example.
I asked Dave to describe the new tactic Dogwood is using to encourage support for Pro Rep. “It’s called Relational Voting” he said, “a simple concept – friends talking to friends. Our networks contain the people most like ourselves. If you’re a ‘Yes’ voter chances are your friends and family are as well.”
As a get-out-the-vote strategy Relational Voting has been used in select US district and congressional races over the past two years. “So in one sense it’s quite a new strategy” he said, “but in the truest sense, it’s as old as the bedrock of democracy itself – conversations between people who share values.”
Relational Voting is ideally suited to the current political climate of mistrust because it bypasses the untrusted messengers of today such as corporate media and government institutions. Even large organizations like Dogwood are not immune to mistrust but Relational Voting means you, personally, deliver a message to your friends and family. “It’s twice as likely to result in action”, he said.
I asked Dave why someone reading this article should take the time to get involved with Dogwood to support pro rep. His response came without thinking so I know it came from his heart. “Because without the individual’s participation democracy unravels” he said. “If we opt out of participating, then democracy goes on death watch.”
“And”, he said, “participation at the citizen level rather than at the party level is the best medicine for what ails our political system.” “Conversation around kitchen tables is how democracy started. Relational Voting gets those conversations started and gives you tools to amplify them.”
If you want to get involved with helping to get the vote out to support Pro Rep, click on this link: https://organize.votebc.ca/recruiter
By the way, if you are worried about how to answer question #2 on the ballot because you don’t feel confident about the different types of proportional representation Dogwood encourages you to just vote Yes to proportional representation on question #1 and leave question #2 blank.
If you want to take a seven minute questionnaire to determine which voting system is the best fit for your values please check out this link: www.referendumguide.ca
Chris Hilliar is a contributor to the Comox Valley Civic Journalism Project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
No wood stove would pass a basic vehicle emissions test, yet the Comox Valley allows them to burn day and night, for weeks and months, with almost no regulation, polluting our air and posing serious public health risks
This article was updated twice on Nov. 2
The Comox Valley has a dirty little secret, and we’ve only recently begun to acknowledge it. The prevalence of wood stoves has made our air quality one of the worst in British Columbia.
It’s estimated that more than a third of Comox Valley households have some type of wood-burning appliance that gets fired up in the fall and then idles all day long, week after week for the next five or six months. And they cause more pollution and risks to public health than any other heat source.
For many, wood burning is part of the northern culture, a lingering nostalgia for living self-sufficiently off the land or a childhood memory of the coziness of gathering around a wood stove. It’s a logger’s ritual of gathering, chopping and stacking wood.
But for others, wood smoke is a nightmare that causes respiratory diseases and increases the risk of heart attacks. It means spending money on air purifiers and medications, or losing money from taking sick time off work.
Comox Valley air quality was among the province’s top 10 worst for fine particulate matter (called PM2.5) for the last six years in a row, according to the BC Lung Association. Courtenay was the only one of 13 communities in the Georgia Strait Air Zone that failed to meet Canadian standards for PM2.5.
The Comox Valley regularly has three or four multi-day air quality advisories every winter, while Vancouver might have one and more often none.
“One only has to drive around older neighborhoods or low-lying areas in the winter, especially in the evening, to see that there is a lot of smoke coming from wood stoves,” says Jennell Ellis, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Breathe Clean Air Comox Valley.
Comox Valley municipalities have started to address the problem.
Cumberland has banned the installation of wood burning appliances — stove and fireplaces — in all new construction. The Comox Valley Regional District has offered incentives to upgrade old, uncertified wood stoves to cleaner, healthier options. Courtenay Council passed a regulation last winter about moving in this direction (low interest loans, not incentives), but it is not in place.
The Town of Comox has taken no action on wood stoves yet. But Mayor-Elect Russ Arnott announced at an air quality information session this week that he expects that to “change in the next three months.”
“I’m hoping to have it brought up quite soon after the new council comes together,” Arnott told Decafnation after the meeting. “My feeling is that this council will want to act on it … So, while I don’t have consensus at this time I’m confident we can work something out.”
The situation is urgent for many people.
A 2017 multi-year heart attack study conducted in Kamloops, Prince George and Courtenay showed that short-term exposure to fine particulates increased heart attack risk in seniors by 6 percent, and by 19 percent when exposed to wood burning.
Ellis said the young and elderly are most at risk of health problems from wood smoke.
Studies have shown that smoke from a wood stove releases carcinogenic toxins equivalent to 1,000 cigarettes.
“Inhaling wood smoke is secondhand smoke,” Ellis said. She adds that PM2.5, the harmful fine particulate in wood smoke is easy to inhale, but difficult to exhale, which leads to deep respiratory problems.
North Island Medical Health Officer Dr. Charmaine Enns has yet to mandate any restrictions on wood burning devices, but she has noted their accompanying health risks.
“It’s understanding the fact that there is no healthy level of air pollution. And exposure over time does impact chronic disease progression,” Enns has said.
FURTHER READING: How to read the Comox Valley air monitor readings
Perhaps it’s that pioneering tradition of burning wood for heat that clouds our judgement of its negative environmental impacts.
“There’s no wood stove that would meet a vehicle emissions test, yet we allow many of them to idle where we live, every day and next to schools,” Ellis told Decafnation via email.
“And if someone isn’t burning well, we end up investing taxpayer’s money into education and then enforcement if they still ignore best practices. No other heating appliance requires this kind of ongoing investment. No other heating appliance has so many proven health impacts,” she said.
What are the solutions
Ellis told Comox residents attending one of Breathe Clean Air’s roving information sessions at the Comox United Church Oct. 30, that to make a transition from wood stoves affordable requires a two-part strategy:
One, incentivize and regulate a transition out of wood stoves completely; and, two keep BC Hydro rates down.
But, the overall goal is to really transition people to cleaner heat sources, particularly in populated areas which will require education, incentives and regulation/enforcement. It is also important that people who are being impacted by neighbourhood smoke have bylaws available to deal with that, just as they do with undue amounts of noise or other disturbances.
“The solution is definitely not to move people to newer wood stoves, especially in more densely populated areas,” she said. “A recent study from the UK showed that an eco-certified stove, operating at factory testing levels, puts out more fine particulates than 18 Modern Diesel Passenger cars.”
Ellis diagramed the rating of heating sources for her Comox audience.
Wood fireplaces are the worst emitters of PM2.5, plus they suck the heat of a house, making them the most inefficient heat sources. Pellet burning stoves are slightly better than wood burners. They emit 27 pounds of annual pollution. Oil furnaces emit a quarter-pound of pollution, and gas a sixteenth of a pound.
Electric powered heating devices are the best, emitting zero pollution annually, she said. And electric heat exchanger systems are the best, drawing a minimum amount of power.
Ellis advocates for a Valley-wide approach, with consistent regulations across jurisdictions. Right now, the Valley’s four municipal governments all have different bylaws governing wood stoves and open burning of yard waste.
Cumberland, Comox and Courtenay all ban backyard fires to burn leaves or other debris, but it is allowed in regional electoral areas A, B and C.
Ellis said there are methods for Valley residents to protect themselves, including running HEPA-rated air purifiers inside, and turning off the ‘fresh’ air intakes in homes and vehicles during heavy smoke periods, usually early winter evenings when mini-atmospheric inversions coincide with people stoking up their stoves. Wearing N95 or N99 rated masks may also help when outside, but only if the mask fits very well.
People can also install localized air quality monitors available from PurpleAir.
The Breathe Clean Air event at Comox United Church in Comox was sponsored by SAGE: Sustainability Action Group for the Environment.