Before the term COVID-19 became part of our vocabulary, Dr. Bonnie Henry and her colleagues first started getting news of a virus taking hold in China back in December.
She said the early signs reminded her of the 2003 SARS outbreak.
“There was, at first, the sense of, ‘OK, we know what’s going on. We have it under control,'” said Henry in a one-on-one interview with Global News’ Sophie Lui. “And then there seemed to be a period of, ‘OK, We don’t know what’s going on.’ And that’s what really worried me.”
As provincial health officer, Henry has spearheaded B.C.’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, from the time it first started making headlines in China to today, when there are 39 confirmed cases in the province, as well as Canada’s first death linked to COVID-19.
Henry’s calm, measured response to the outbreak has earned her kudos from the public and public health professionals alike. An online fan club has even popped up on social media.
She said she is “slightly embarrassed” by all the attention, and that it comes with her role as the face of a much larger team.
She showed a rare display of emotion during a news conference on Saturday, when speaking about an outbreak at a North Vancouver long-term care home.
“We know that the elderly in our communities are at high risk of having severe disease or complications from this COVID-19,” she said, choking up from behind the podium alongside Health Minister Adrian Dix.
“I’m calling on all of us in B.C. to do what we need to do to protect our seniors and elders in our community and to keep them safe.”
Henry and her colleagues work constantly on how best to respond to a constantly changing health crisis.
“We have learned in this country, absolutely, that we need to pay attention to these things,” she said. “And there was some questioning, you know, are you overblowing this? Is it too much? And my thoughts have always been I’d rather overreact than not do enough.”
British Columbians need to think about “social distancing”, she said, which is defined by Canada’s public health agency as steps to “minimize close contact” with others in the community, such as “quarantine or self-isolation at the individual level” along with broader steps such as avoiding crowds.
She said people who are at risk may wish to stay away from some of these larger gatherings, particularly indoor gatherings that last for a longer period of time.
Henry said her experiences with SARS, the Ebola virus and the H1N1 influenza virus, also known as the swine flu, have helped inform her work battling COVID-19.
“What we’re working on intently here in Canada and in B.C. is buying time. So the longer we can buy time — the more we can get people to stay home, to stay away from others to prevent transmission — the better chance we have of getting a vaccine or getting a treatment that we can use on people.
“We do know with other coronaviruses that they tend to get milder over time.”
Henry said her job can be all-consuming — her days filled with meetings and updates on the fight against coronavirus in B.C. and around the world, as well as planning how to communicate with the public.
“These are challenging times for all of us,” she said. “Our role in public health is to really be part of trying to protect the community. So it does keep me awake, I have to say.”
— With files from Maryam Shah and The Canadian Press