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UBC dental school planned to hold clinics, classes after COVID-19 case at conference

Last Updated Mar 17, 2020 at 11:40 am PDT

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'All staff and salaried faculty are expected to present to work at the usual time,' dentistry dean said Sunday

School reversed plans Monday morning

More COVID-19 cases linked to conference, attendees told to self-isolate

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Days after officials announced someone diagnosed with COVID-19 had attended a dental conference in Vancouver, the dean of UBC’s dentistry program was still telling some faculty and students to keep coming to campus.

Mary MacDougall told dentistry faculty, students and staff Sunday evening that the school’s doctoral and dental hygiene classes and clinics were cancelled for the following day and sessional faculty were not expected to come to campus the next day, according to an email obtained by NEWS 1130.

But MacDougall said in the same email that all graduate programs were scheduled to go ahead.

Staff told to come to work

“All sessional faculty who teach in the graduate programs are asked to attend the sessions as scheduled,” she wrote, in an email sent less than 10 days after the conclusion of the Pacific Dental Conference, which was attended by some faculty, staff and students.

“The UBC Vancouver campus remains open and all university operations continue as normal,” MacDougall wrote Sunday. “All staff and salaried faculty are expected to present to work at the usual time.”

Those classes were later cancelled before they were held, but not before raising questions about the school’s response to the pandemic.

At the time the email was sent, one COVID-19 case had been linked to the conference – but four more had yet to be announced publicly.

Plan changed Monday morning

MacDougall did not respond to an interview request from NEWS 1130. UBC spokesperson Matthew Ramsey said he could speak on her behalf.

The graduate classes and clinics MacDougall had said on Sunday were to go ahead were cancelled Monday morning, “in accordance with provincial healthcare partners,” Ramsey said.

He added he didn’t know exactly how many dentistry school members attended the conference.

“I know that all faculty, staff and students have been told to self isolate and they are doing so in accordance with direction from our provincial health-care partners,” he said.

Ramsey forwarded an email sent to dentistry faculty on Monday announcing that all dental classes and clinics will be cancelled until March 27.

Thousands of conference goers told to isolate

The conference brought thousands of people to the Vancouver Convention Centre March 5 to 7.

Before the event, organizers assured attendees they had consulted with provincial health officials and measures had been “put in place to amplify cleaning and sanitization processes throughout the venue.”

But on March 12, Vancouver Coastal Health said someone who had attended the conference between 2 and 4 p.m. on March 6 had since tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which has now infected more than 160,000 and killed more than 6,600 worldwide.

In a press release at the time, the health authority said “public health officials have completed a risk assessment and concluded that the risk to participants is extremely low.”

The same release told attendees they “should continue with their usual daily activities” as long as they didn’t develop COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, headache and shortness of breath).

On Monday, B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said the conference shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

“We were not consulted on that,” she said. “It was at a time when I was advising medical conferences in particular should not be held.”

But the president of the BC Dental Association, which organized the conference, said organizers did consult with the Provincial Health Services Authority a week before the event. A doctor from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control even spoke about COIVD-19 at the conference, he said.

“At no point was the [Pacific Dental Conference] asked by any public health representatives to halt the conference,” he said in a statement provided to NEWS 1130.

Henry said at least four more cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the dental conference and advised all attendees to self-isolate for 14 days.

“They should not be at work. They should not be at school. They should not be around others,” Henry said.