One of the most important and potentially powerful people in B.C. right now is a soft-spoken but straight-shooting doctor who is also becoming one of the most familiar faces in the province during the coronavirus pandemic.
Her name is Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer who is beamed into family living rooms and various devices on a near-daily basis, as she calmly stands in front of an array of television news cameras and provides the latest update on the looming crisis of COVID-19 and what to do about it.
Right now, the virus is like a giant dark cloud on a horizon that is drawing ever nearer. Each day brings word of more British Columbians contracting it, and soon that cloud will be upon us in ways seldom envisioned before.
Which makes someone in Dr. Henry’s position all the more critical.
Providing information in a pandemic is a key part of the B.C. government’s strategy in dealing with one. There are a lot of moving parts — involving health authorities, front-line health-care workers and government ministries — but the need to keep the public well informed (and therefore educated) on all aspects of a pandemic is considered crucial.
Dr. Henry is the public face in B.C. of the efforts to combat the virus, as well she should be. Health Minister Adrian Dix (who has deservedly been given kudos by even his political opponents for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis) wisely decided early on he would take a distant back seat to the Public Health Officer.
In other words, politics is getting out of the way in favour of science. Dix appears at the daily briefings along with Dr. Henry, but she takes the lead at all of them.
“Dr. Henry is an incredibly effective communicator,” Dix recently told me. “She is calm, measured and exudes warmth. She is able to provide sometimes complicated scientific information without talking down to someone.”
She is also heading up a massive response from B.C.’s public health team to COVID-19. Already, more than 6,000 people have been tested for the virus.
The amount of follow-up work after someone has been diagnosed as having the virus is substantial — where have they been, who have they seen, etc. — and painstaking.
Without the efforts of Dr. Henry and her team, things would undoubtedly be worse and the public’s grasp of what is going on likely diminished.
Last weekend, Dr. Henry was overcome with emotion in her daily briefing as she disclosed the virus had infected two people in a North Vancouver long-term care home.
It was a powerful and dramatic moment, and spoke volumes about the intense pressure Dr. Henry — and indeed the entire public health team — must be under right now.
However, it may have also reflected the fact that Dr. Henry has first-hand knowledge of the tragedies that can come with viral outbreaks, having been the operational lead in the response to the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003. She has also worked to eradicate polio in Pakistan and control an Ebola outbreak in Uganda.
So she brings a wealth of experience to the table when it is needed most.
Her messaging on how to deal with COVID-19 has been relentless and never changing: wash your hands constantly and thoroughly, and do not go to work or school if you feel sick.
“Wash your hands as if you’ve been chopping jalapeños and you need to change your contacts,” she once memorably stated. (Don’t be surprised to see other public health officers across the country or even the world steal that line, which drives home the point rather effectively.)
At some point, Dr. Henry may see the need to use her office’s broad powers as set out in the Public Health Act (i.e. mass quarantines). But for now, she is focused on containing the virus, slowing it down and keeping British Columbians informed in a calm, measured manner.
Consider ourselves lucky for this. And remember: keep washing your hands.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC