Dentist who attended B.C. industry conference may have died from coronavirus

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the COVID-19 situation

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton on March 20, 2020.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

A dentist who attended a large industry conference in Vancouver this month is suspected of dying from COVID-19, while several doctors who attended a curling bonspiel in Edmonton have fallen ill.

Chief medical officers from both provinces have now linked 44 novel coronavirus patients to these two events, gatherings that today would be viewed as reckless and even illegal given what the world knows about the highly infectious virus that causes COVID-19.

British Columbia’s officials say they have tracked down and notified all those put at risk. Meanwhile, Alberta’s medical authorities are scrambling to notify more than 100 people who might have been exposed to the virus by attendees of a curling event.

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Staff at Denis Vincent’s North Vancouver, B.C., dental practice confirmed Tuesday that he had died this past Sunday.

Fardad Moayeri, a long-time friend and client of Dr. Vincent, posted a brief note of remembrance on his personal Facebook page saying the man, in his 60s, was a dedicated father, a talented dentist, a phenomenal skier and a generous and reliable friend.

Dr. Vincent was one of an estimated 15,000 people who attended the Pacific Dental Conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre on March 5 through 7.

Organizers of the event have been blamed for holding the conference during the fast-moving novel coronavirus situation in British Columbia. But those behind the conference have defended themselves by saying they got the ultimate go-ahead to hold the event from Provincial Health Services Authority staff on Feb. 24.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Tuesday in her daily media briefing that she could not confirm whether Dr. Vincent’s death was related to COVID-19, saying an investigation by the B.C. coroners service will determine that.

“I do know they attended the conference and they were known to public health and an investigation had been done,” she said. “This conference is a major source of some of the infections that we’ve been seeing in B.C. There are now up to 32 people that we can link directly, or indirectly, to that conference.”

In previous briefings, at least seven of Alberta’s positive cases and three in Saskatchewan were linked to the dental conference. On Tuesday, the medical officials running Ontario’s briefing said they were not aware of any cases in that province linked to the West Coast conference.

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Dr. Henry assured the public that health officials have traced who was infected there and have notified any patients who might be at risk from having seen their dentists during the brief period they continued working after the conference.

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said on Tuesday there were 47 health-care workers from Alberta, including doctors, at the curling event in Edmonton and 12 of them had tested positive for COVID-19. ​

Dr. Hinshaw said all of those workers’ close friends, co-workers and relatives were being contacted. They included three doctors from Red Deer, where 58 patients and 97 other health-care workers are being contacted about potential exposure. There were also doctors from the Calgary and Edmonton regions who were infected. (Dr. Henry said Tuesday she was not aware of any British Columbians having attended the curling event.)

Dr. Hinshaw said the bonspiel cases underscore the need for social distancing and other measures that have been put into place.

“Symptoms can be mild and these physicians did not know they had been exposed to a case of COVID-19 when they became ill; they simply finished out their shifts, went home and self-isolated,” she said.

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“This experience is a reminder that it is critical to immediate self-isolate at the first sign of symptoms. This can be challenging and the health system needs to support health workers to take these steps.”

Caroline Colijn, the Canada 150 research chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health based at Simon Fraser University in B.C., said it is tricky to track the path of infections.

Dr. Colijn, a disease-modelling expert, said in a statement that it’s easy to criticize policy in hindsight, and those exposed wouldn’t have been affected had bonspiels been banned. “Estimations of safe gatherings are challenging because we don’t typically see where exposure happened. Perhaps some of the curlers also knew each other socially and had other settings in common.”

She said she would like to see better data sharing in Canada so modellers, statisticians and medical researchers could build the best possible picture of what is happening.

Last Tuesday evening, Hank Klein began slurring his words and having trouble walking, so he went to the emergency room at Vancouver General Hospital thinking he might be having a stroke. When the retired dentist told doctors there that he attended the dental conference just over a week earlier, they immediately tested him for COVID-19.

He tested positive and is now isolating at his Vancouver home.

Leading up to the conference, he did not think attending an event with hundreds of people would be that risky.

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“I was alerted that there were a few conferences in other parts of the [United] States that were being cancelled, but this one was going ahead and I said, oh, I think we’re okay,” Mr. Klein said.

With files from Xiao Xu and Andrea Woo in Vancouver

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