Canucks offer insight into COVID outbreak, dangers of variant transmission

Elliotte Friedman spoke to Caroline Cameron about another Canucks player being added to the COVID-19 protocol list, how the Canadiens are approaching Brendan Gallagher and Carey Price's injuries, and the looming trade deadline.

VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks are running out of healthy players to test for COVID-19, and now we know why.

Breaking its communications silence, the team issued a medical statement Wednesday summarizing the positive tests so far, confirming there is a coronavirus variant involved and attributing the outbreak to a “source infection to a single individual obtained in a community setting.”

The statement, released by team physician Dr. Jim Bovard, and infectious disease physician Dr. Josh Douglas, stopped short of naming the individual or even classifying the individual as a player. Winger Adam Gaudette was the first Canuck to test positive for COVID-19, based on a March 29 sample that was confirmed positive the next day.

The community setting is believed to have been a Vancouver restaurant. Several have been closed recently due to COVID exposures. The province shut down interior dining at restaurants the same day as Gaudette’s positive test.

The Canucks’ statement adds heft to the internal memo the NHL sent its teams on Saturday warning against non-compliance with the league’s COVID-19 protocols, which include a prohibition on players dining out.

“We have begun to encounter incidences of non-compliance with the COVID-19 Protocol, which have resulted in exposure to, and infection from, the COVID virus,” the memo stated.

The Canucks’ statement also had the side effect of exonerating the Montreal Canadiens, who had their own shutdown when players Joel Armia and Jesperi Kotkaniemi went into COVID protocol shortly after playing against Vancouver on March 20. By extension, the NHL itself is also off the hook.

Drs. Bovard and Douglas said the 25 members of the Canucks who had tested positive included 21 players, three of them from Vancouver’s taxi squad. After the press release, defenceman Nate Schmidt was added to the NHL’s protocol list, which includes 19 players and makes the Canucks' outbreak the largest in the league this season.

Brock Boeser, J.T. Miller, Jimmy Vesey and Jordie Benn are the only players from the 22 listed on Vancouver’s NHL roster, at the time the team was shut down, who are not in COVID protocol. The lineup for the daily morning drive-through test at Rogers Arena is getting awfully short.

OH, HENRY

The Canucks’ media release came the day after British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s newsworthy comment to reporters that she was “not aware that any of the cases in the Canucks’ organization are related to the P.1.”

Her response to a question about the COVID variant associated with Brazil took on an almost dismissive tone when she added, “I don’t know where that started.”

It sounded like a rebuke. Privately, the Canucks were a little surprised by her remark as the organization and the NHL have been working during the outbreak under the belief that it was likely the P.1 variant decimating the team. This wasn’t hockey-operations supposition, but the best guess by the club and league’s medical staff based on circumstance and case evidence.

Reporting on the Canucks’ outbreak, by Sportsnet and others, has reflected this belief and warned about the added danger of the highly-transmissible P.1 variant that is surging in B.C. and against which adults ages 20-39 are especially susceptible.

Under the headline “Province lowballs variant numbers,” The Vancouver Sun newspaper reported Wednesday that the B.C. government has been “undercounting” variants within its COVID-19 totals.

Technically, Dr. Henry wasn’t wrong on Tuesday. The team was still awaiting genome sequencing on its players’ positive samples to be completed by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, so there was no way yet to confirm the outbreak was caused by P.1 or any other variant. Or that it wasn’t.

But by Wednesday, the Canucks had proof that the “source infection is confirmed as a variant,” although they continue to await lab identification of which one.

Concern within the hockey team and in the community looks well-founded. And Dr. Henry, widely and rightly praised for her calm leadership during the pandemic, looks a little worse.

OH, BROTHER

One consequence of Henry’s statement was the emboldening of COVID “truthers” who believe the dangers of the coronavirus have been greatly exaggerated.

Read through the comments section of virtually any COVID-related story, even one as basic to human nature (and decency) as sportsnet.ca’s feature on Tim and Cindy Horvat and their parental concern for Canucks captain Bo Horvat and their grandson Gunnar, and you will find conspiracists willing to argue the seriousness of the virus.

Some seemed to be celebrating Tuesday what they perceived as Dr. Henry’s dismissal of P.1 as the cause of the Canucks’ outbreak. As if “regular” COVID were like getting the sniffles.

The global death toll of the virus is approaching three million. In Canada, COVID-19’s mortality rate is 2.3 per cent. Roughly one in 50 people who contract the virus in this country die from it.

Yes, the great majority of these deaths are among the very elderly and those weakened by pre-existing medical conditions. But nearly the entire Canucks team now has the disease. These are remarkably fit, healthy young athletes who have taken more precautions than most of us and are supported by their own private medical staff.

Take that as a warning – or not. But whether it’s the variants that originated in Brazil, England or South Africa or the first strain of COVID-19, this virus truly is a murderer's row.

WHEN WILL THEY PLAY?

Even as the Canucks schedule gets pushed back (but not officially by the NHL since an initial declaration of a four-game postponement last Thursday), there has been no wavering from the league in its objective that Vancouver should complete a 56-game season.

The Edmonton Oilers have been told by the league not to expect the Canucks to be available for scheduled visits next Monday and Wednesday, which means Vancouver won’t play any sooner than its home game April 17 against the Toronto Maple Leafs or the rematch two nights later.

If the Canucks don’t return until April 19, it’s impossible for them to play 19 games in 23 days before the revised end of the regular season on May 11. Even extending the season another three to four days shouldn’t allow a 56-game schedule, not one that the NHL Players’ Association should abide by.

Think about it: the Canucks, who last played March 24, will be coming off nearly four weeks of inactivity. Players may have as few as one or two full practices to prepare, significantly increasing the likelihood of injury once they begin playing games at an unprecedented pace. And the Canucks will be doing this with a roster of players returning from the coronavirus who are no longer contagious, but certainly not 100 per cent.

A 56-game season for Vancouver not only looks impossible, but inhumane.

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