B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the record-breaking surge of COVID-19 cases in the province could eventually lead to a stage where the virus becomes endemic.
The province is going through its worst spike in infections yet, driven by the more infectious Omicron variant, with the 4,383 cases recorded on Thursday marking an all-time record number for daily cases.
In a year-end interview with CBC News, Henry said Omicron’s spread was “unexpectedly fast” for the province’s health authorities, calling it a “new game” of the pandemic.
She introduced gathering restrictions in response to the province’s fifth wave, on Dec. 17, and announced on Wednesday that most K-12 students would return one week later than usual from winter break.
“I agonized absolutely about making the decisions that we did on [Dec. 17],” she said. “I then spent that entire weekend agonizing more.… I had to check my optimism bias.
“It was a very difficult decision, but I felt we needed to overreact rather than underreact at that time.”
Though the province’s daily cases are peaking, and contact tracing and testing are at full capacity (meaning B.C.’s true case counts are likely much higher), Henry says she believes the province will eventually see the end of the pandemic.
“The way the virus is changing with Omicron — that is leading us to that place sooner,” she said. “The type of illness it’s causing, with most of us being protected through vaccination, means that we are going to get to that place.”
Henry says the virus will eventually become endemic as the season shifts to spring, more children get vaccinated and the spread of infection slows, though she said there are still many unknowns ahead.
“I think we’re getting there, but we’re always going to have to learn some of the lessons from this,” she said.
“Some of them are societal — around the inequities that this virus has exposed and the value that we put on different types of workers, for example.”
Never felt political pressure
Henry, who has been the face of the province’s COVID-19 response, with Premier John Horgan taking a back seat, says she never felt political interference over the course of the pandemic.
“I have tremendous respect for our elected officials,” she said. “They have an incredibly important role, and my role is to provide the best advice possible and to try and find that balance.”
Henry also revealed that she has regular meetings with the Opposition party, the B.C. Liberals, as well as with health officials throughout the country and province.
She said she was grateful for the advice and criticism that she has received from her various meetings, and said officials let her take the lead when making important decisions.
Decision-making based on available information
Henry said she stands by the decisions the province has taken over the course of the pandemic, despite continuous criticism that B.C. has responded too slowly to the spread of COVID-19.
“I have a strong sense that we’re making rational decisions with the best information that we have,” she said. “I don’t think we’re doing any better or worse than we have from the very beginning.”
She said there were many decisions that she would have slightly altered had she known more, but didn’t get into specifics.
“I have said from the very beginning that we wait for the recriminations, the class-action lawsuits and the public inquiries before we start celebrating anything,” she said with a laugh.