B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer doesn’t just guide the province’s response to COVID-19. She leads a team that is getting the most up-to-date information on who’s testing positive, where they are and how they likely came into contact with the virus.
In the early days of the pandemic, she was widely praised in the province and beyond for how British Columbia managed to “flatten the curve.” But as case counts rise, schools re-open and the debate over using masks continues, there are lots of questions — and criticism — of how the pandemic response is being managed.
In an exclusive interview with The National, Dr. Henry discussed those topics — watch the full interview in the player at the top of this story. Here are four key takeaways:
Public safety and rising case counts
Ian Hanomansing: I know people now in my personal life, that when they see the case counts now, they seem to take it personally like a punch in the gut — especially when the numbers are above 100. How do you feel when you announce those numbers?
Dr. Bonnie Henry: They make me anxious as well.
You know, we did such a good job working together in B.C. People really took this to heart. We all did what we needed to do to get that curve back down. Right now what we’re seeing is a lot more testing. We have the capacity to do that. And, we’re also seeing illness and cases, not a lot of illness but cases, in younger people. So, we know it’s still circulating.
We knew that was going to happen. We knew that. We also know that we know how to control this. We do it through case management. We do it through contact tracing, trying to keep a lid on it, trying to keep it away from those we know now are more vulnerable, particularly our elders and seniors.
So, when I look at it and I get anxious, I look at our hospitalizations. I look at our ICUs. I look at, you know, what’s happening, can we link cases? And, we’re doing a good job of that. But it is at that point where we need to refocus. We need to refocus because it’s also important for the wellness of our community to get people to go back to work and to have children return back at school. And, to do that, and continue to do that safely, we need to make some sacrifices in other parts of our life.
Are we less safe on a day to day basis, say, today than six weeks ago when the numbers were much lower? Not at all. I think we are recognizing where this virus is circulating and we’re able to keep it controlled. We still have very low rates of transmission in our community and that’s a testament to how we have worked at controlling this in B.C.
So, as long as we keep those rates low, everything else that we need to do for the health and wellness of our community, we can do that too.
Hanomansing: Let me just ask you to clarify that, because I saw some people just this week on Twitter saying, “how can she say we have low rates of community transmission when we see case numbers exceeding 100 on many days?”
Dr. Henry: But if we look at 100 compared to the population that we have, and we know where these people are picking this up so we can trace it back, we can stop that. And it’s how many each individual case is transmitting to that’s important as well. So, those are very much still under control here.
Back to school
Hanomansing: Let’s talk about schools. Throughout this pandemic, I have to say in my many years as a journalist, I’ve never seen a public official who’s received so much public support and adulation at times as you have in B.C. and across the country. But, on a couple of issues, and one of them is schools, I’ve seen people, teachers and some parents, who say, “Dr. Henry does not have my interests at heart, she’s not properly protecting my kids.” How do you respond to that?
Dr. Henry: That’s hard for me to hear, because absolutely the most important thing we want to do is have children back in a learning environment and to do it safely for everybody. That has been our overriding focus.
And we do know there have been downside impacts of children being at home. Even in families that have access to internet and computers, it has been very, very challenging. We’ve heard that from parents across the board. Eighty per cent of parents, 300,000 people who answered our survey, 80 per cent of them said they had challenges and their children were suffering not being in the classroom setting. So, that was our focus, and we have layers of protection to do that.
It is always anxiety-provoking. This time of year, going back to school, has always been a challenge. Kids are anxious. Parents are anxious. Teachers are anxious. And that just is compounded by this pandemic, and we can manage it. We can do it. We’ve been learning from other places around the world that have done it successfully, and we’ll do it successfully here too.
Hanomansing: There are plenty of people, especially in B.C., saying “well, why are so many kids being jammed in a class? Why aren’t all kids wearing masks all the time? Why are they still going through with this plan? Let’s get kids back to school, but the way it’s being done is not safe.” You, I’m sure, have seen that kind of feedback.
Dr. Henry: We spent a lot of time, we learned from June, when we went back in June [with] those small groups of students. It really was important to say, “OK, how can we rejig our classes? How can we make it so that not everybody is in the hallway at the same time?” We learned a lot and we have had teams of teachers, parents, the superintendents of the schools, the ministry, and my public health team. We have been working together on this through the summer, to make sure we can do this safely for everybody in the school environment.
And, I think the important thing is this virus is going to be with us for some time. So we need to learn how to live with it, and how to live with it in a way that’s sustainable for months, maybe years.
No requirement for masks in indoor spaces
Hanomansing: The other point that has been contentious, and this is almost from the beginning, is masks. I see so much feedback generally, but also directed at you, about why [B.C. does not require masks in public spaces]. I mean, I got some responses on social media saying, “Why is Dr. Bonnie Henry ignoring the scientific evidence on masks?”
Dr. Henry: That does make me smile, because I’ve been a supporter of wearing masks at the right time, in the right place, and the right mask, for a long time.
Early on, of course, our focus was ensuring we had masks in our medical system. And, as you will recall, there was a shortage globally of those masks. There was concern as well, and we didn’t know much about wearing masks in the community and what types of masks would work. I have always said that if people wanted to wear them, that we should support that, that we should not be stigmatizing children or others for wearing masks, and that it is an important symbol of respect in many cultures. We know that.
As we’ve progressed, we have learned that there is a place for masks. It’s not the first line of defence. It is part of what we can do, particularly for those situations where we can’t maintain our safe distances, where we might be encountering people we don’t know.
So, there’s many different places where masks can be of benefit and we’ve watched those incidents. We’ve also seen that the culture, the understanding of how to wear a mask and the availability of masks has increased. So, this whole idea now of having non-medical masks and people using them is absolutely something that I support.
Hanomansing: We’re not wearing masks now. I mean, I’m not wearing one either. Would we be safer right now if we had masks on?
Dr. Henry: No. You see, these are the things that we have learned. There are times when you need it — if we were sitting closer together and having this conversation, then absolutely. But, if you can maintain your distance and that’s safe, we know that, you know, with a large environment, lots of empty space, this is good. Outside is safer than inside.
If you’re walking by somebody on the street, that’s not a situation where you’re going to pass this virus on. It is much more those indoor settings. Transit is a perfect example, where you can’t maintain the distance and it can be helpful to have a mask on. Particularly if you are sick or if you’ve been exposed to somebody with the virus, then those are important things where you want to stay away from others.
Hanomansing: I was under strict instruction from your staff that if any of us had symptoms, not to be here, so that was kind of the first line of defence, I’m sure.
Dr. Henry: That’s right.
When will a safe, reliable vaccine be available?
Hanomansing: What’s your best guess as to when there’ll be a vaccine available?
Dr. Henry: Oh, the optimist in me says … early 2021. You know, I see a couple of good things. A little bit of a setback with one of the vaccines recently, but…
Hanomansing: Are you getting updates?
Dr. Henry: Oh, yes. Absolutely. There are about 50-some [vaccine research projects] that we’ve been following. The vaccine is something that’s going to be incredibly important.
I also think, coming into influenza season, protecting everyone from influenza is going to be paramount. One, because we don’t want people to become sick and have symptoms that become confused with COVID, but also to keep people from having to be hospitalized. We know influenza does that every year, particularly for our very young and our elders. So, those are very important.
I’m hopeful in the new year and by next summer we’ll be in a good place.
Hanomansing: So, you preface that by saying that’s the optimist in you, which I applaud. But, I’d like the realist in you to weigh in as well. Is it still kind of that timing, by next summer?
Dr. Henry: Yes, I think by next summer. There are about eight vaccines now that are in phase two and three trials, and I expect at least one of them will work out.
Whether it’s going to be available around the world, or how long that’s going to take, is going to be a bit more [uncertain], but we’re planning for that.
And I expect it’ll be in stages. There may be different vaccines for different populations, ones that work better for the elderly, for example, or for younger people. But if we can protect those that are most at risk, if we can protect our elders, people with underlying illness and our health care workers, then we can really get back to a much more normal [social routine], if you will.