Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix joined Global BC on Wednesday night for another town hall on the province’s response to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The province’s latest round of measures to curb transmission were one of the many topics discussed during the one-hour event, hosted by News Hour at 6 anchors Chris Gailus and Sophie Lui.
Here are some of their answers to questions from people across the province. Responses have been edited and abridged for clarity.
Why are pubs and bars allowed to be open but not churches or other places of worship?
Henry: So we know from the very beginning we have had restrictions in place on pubs, bars, restaurants, and I’ve said several times the licensing makes it challenging sometimes to tell the difference between one or the other. However, there are restrictions that are in place and there are COVID safety plans.
When we had problems with transmission events in nightclubs, for example, we tried to modify them. It didn’t work. We shut them down.
So right now, all pubs, bars and restaurants have to have maximum six people to a table. There’s distancing. There’s masks in place. They need to stop serving alcohol at 10 o’clock and they need to shut down.
So those are in place and we’re not seeing transmission. And we know that those are places where people go for a variety of reasons, but mostly to get fed.
When we talk about places of worship, it’s not that they’re shut down. What we’ve had is we know there’s transmission events that happen even with the best-laid plans of people. And when you’re in a church or a mosque and you’re with those 50 people, we know that there’s that temptation to have that social interaction.
We had started to see transmission in a number of different religious events so we need to take a pause for now. There’s so many passionate leaders in our faith communities around the province that are supporting their congregations to make sure that we can take this pause, do it safely and still get that connection and that spiritual connection that we need so much.
Dix: In the case of churches, it’s important to know that it’s events. So it’s across all kinds of events and we list them off and you can see them on the Ministry of Health — the BC CDC website. That includes everything from artistic events, such as puppet shows to theatres to churches.
These are events of all kinds that provide a lot of sustenance to people. These are the events that help us enjoy a better life together so it’s only with the greatest, greatest of reason that these events are being cancelled for the next two weeks.
The church restriction affects me. This week is the first Sunday in Advent and I would be ordinarily in church like a lot of other people in B.C. and I absolutely respect it.
So what we’re asking people to do until Dec. 7 is to keep prayer and keep services virtual, to do that now. I am very impressed with the support — because it’s been limited to 50 as you know for some time — the support we’ve received from church leaders and church congregations.
We absolutely understand their role and it’s an essential role. But right now, we just cannot have these events. And it’s not just church events. I’ve talked to lots of people on the phone and said, ‘Why are you being unfair to religious events?’ We’re not. These are events, period. The only exceptions, of course, are weddings and funerals and baptisms. Those are limited to 10. So there’s a little less restriction in church than most other places. But basically, the restrictions hold and they’re for a very good reason.
How do I report people in violation of public health orders?
Dix: The way to do that is through local bylaw officers, through non-emergency lines that may go to the police — not emergency lines, not 9-1-1.
On certain issues that may involve businesses, it could involve WorkSafe BC, if you’re a worker, for example, in the business and in some cases, again, with businesses, it might be your local public health.
If you look on our website, there’s a there’s an answer to frequently asked questions. Sometimes the number is different in different places. We really encourage people, though — our police do an extraordinary job — to really use bylaw officers and non-emergency lines and to support those efforts, if you feel that’s necessary.
Will we go back to more of a lockdown like Ontario and Manitoba?
Henry: You know what? We didn’t have to do that in the first wave that we experienced and we have been watching very carefully the public health side of things, behind the scenes, trying to find exactly where we’re seeing transmission events. So the orders we have in place, where we’ve put restrictions in place have been to address those conditions that lead to more transmission. And we’re seeing a lot of it at the end of summer into September in these personal gatherings whether it was weddings in the home, in the backyard, people coming together, even in small numbers, but transmitting to those small numbers of people and passing it on.
So the long story is we’re trying to focus on where we see risk and we know the risk is indoors. When people are together in crowds, when we’re socializing, when we’re talking loudly, or when we’re having those conversations close to people.
Those are the environments that we need to stop right now and we’ll be watching very carefully. We’re targeting those workplaces and other spaces where we’re seeing transmission and that’s how we’re going to approach this.
We don’t believe we can get this virus to zero given our position in the world geographically where people are moving back and forth, where we have essential goods and services that come back and forth across our borders. So what we need to do is find that balance again, where public health contact tracing can find people quickly, prevent that ongoing transmission to the next layer, to the next transmission event, and break those chains.
We did it before. We can do it again. We have a team of contact tracers who are working to get us back to that point. But we all need to do our bit now as a circuit-break, if you will, to get that back into a balance and then we won’t need any additional restrictions.
Dix: I think the interest we’ve seen from people in the last week or so about the orders — Does this work? Does that not work? — is because they want to comply and that’s a good engagement for us.
But we did also learn from the spring. There are consequences when you don’t have in-class education. There are consequences when a whole bunch of businesses have to close. There are consequences, and we’ve seen this in the overdose crisis really throughout the pandemic.
So what we’re trying to do is learn. And so you see a very different hospital plan now than we saw in the spring based on what we’ve learned and we’re continuing to learn more about COVID-19 every day.
Many parents still want to know: Why do we not see the requirement for masks in schools in B.C.?
Henry: So there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is, even with our maks mandate, we know that it’s challenging for children, younger children, to wear a mask all the time, particularly when you’re sitting in the desk in the school all day. But really, there are requirements for mask-wearing in some parts of the school. And we know that there are multiple different things in place to reduce the risk of transmission in schools. Masks are one of them, and like other workplaces and non-public places, there are layers of protection that are in place, including the learning groups, including reducing the number of contacts that children have.
Masking is important when you’re in common areas, particularly when you’re not going around your own group only, on buses and places like that. As well, it’s really important for the adults in the school system to wear masks when they’re moving between groups.
Will B.C. sends kids home to learn remotely if cases continue to surge like Alberta has done?
Henry: We aren’t really looking at it at this point. It’s part of the whole strategy and I know in some parts of the province, especially for the older students, there is a hybrid of remote and days-on. And each school district has their own way of looking at that. But really, what we are seeing in schools is that, yes, there’s exposure events, there’s people who may have been in the school during the period where they might be infectious to others, but we’re not seeing a lot of transmission.
It’s not like outbreaks are happening. It’s more that what’s happening in schools is reflecting what’s happening in the community.
That’s why it’s so important for all of us to decrease the amount of transmission in the community.
We heard from parents from across the province, from families, from teachers, that children not being in school had a lot of negative impacts both on their learning but also on families, and that families found it very stressful and very hard.
So it is a priority for us to make sure that we’re in a safe school environment and that children can learn. It’s more than just education, the relationships that they have with their peers, with teachers, with educators in the school system is important for emotional growth and for development and for the future. And we know that that is incredibly important, not just for kids, but for the teachers and for our families. So that is a priority in B.C.
What are the chances that public schools and others will be closing early for the holiday break in December or possibly extending the break well into January?
Dix: The answer is that we are discussing it and we’re looking for the advice, as we do on every issue, from public health professionals and people in education as well.
This has been considered in other jurisdictions, and it’s something that is under active consideration in British Columbia.
Henry: This has been an anxiety-provoking time for all of us with the uncertainty with what’s going on. And we also know that there’s possibilities of things like vaccine early in the new year.
So we are looking at the pros and cons of which there are myriad for both different models — early on and later, and discussing it with relevant stakeholders, including in education and teachers, but also families, businesses and looking at what the options are.
Can our kids have an indoor playdate with a child who is already in their school cohort?
Henry: The short answer is not right now. We’re asking you to stick to your household bubble, so just one bubble. So we have work, we have school. We have social bubbles sometimes, we have team bubbles if we play sports. Right now, we need to pull it back to focus on our work and making sure we’re doing that safely and going to school and following the rules in school, wearing masks when we need to, and then our household bubble.
So right now, we don’t want playdates. We don’t want us going out and having gatherings with friends and social gatherings.
If ICUs continue to fill up, at what point will the ministry decide to suspend elective surgeries again?
Dix: Well, we did that in March and it was a very difficult decision at that time in March and April and then we relaunched the surgical plan in May. And over the last two months, we’ve done more surgeries than any other year in B.C.
And that’s a real tribute to everyone in health care.
Obviously, the more people that are in our hospitals, the more pressure there is in those hospitals. And we have particular situations right now in Burnaby and Lions Gate.
The big challenge isn’t the beds. We have a very significant number of critical care beds and we’ve got about a 56 per cent occupancy right now, partly because we don’t have that much flu around and we’ve got about a 72 per cent occupancy. If you think of that, in all of our beds, both our base beds and our surge beds that we put in place.
But there is pressure on staff when there’s a lot of COVD-19. You need doctors, you need nurses, you need health sciences professionals, you need health-care workers. So that may put pressure on the numbers.
You may see us, if it gets worse, reduce the number of surgeries we’re doing to take pressure off the ICU. But we’re not going to see a repetition because we learned from what happened in the spring.
Do you think it’s time to put in more concrete rules and restrictions instead of suggestions and recommendations?
Henry: We are learning. It’s changing. It’s different and we’re putting in rules where we need rules and you saw that this week.
We are on this road for a while longer but there’s no other road to take. This is our road and so we need to find a way to get through it. Right now, we’ve put in some stronger restrictions, but we do have a light at the end of that tunnel.
So it will change. It will change again as we learn. It’ll change again once we start having vaccine available.
Those are the things that we need to look for. We are on this road for another six months to a year. So we all need to take a deep breath and be OK today. We remind ourselves about getting through today and finding that bit of joy every day.
Considering the vast majority of deaths are in long-term care homes, why are we not doing more rapid testing for these facilities?
Henry: Well, it’s not a viable tactic at the moment. So there’s two different types of rapid tests we have. One takes about 20 minutes per test so if you can think of having to do that every day on your way into work, and it’s a nasal pharyngeal swab, so it needs to go into the back of the nose, and you need a health-care worker to do that. So it’s just not a practical thing at the moment.
And both the types of tests that we have are only licensed for people who have symptoms because that’s how they’ve been tested, and they’re not validated and they don’t necessarily work that well in people who don’t have symptoms.
Having said that, I do feel there’s a really important role for them in helping us manage and detect outbreaks. So when there is people with symptoms, we can find out right away if it’s COVID or not. And that’s the strategy we’ll be looking at.
Do you have any predictions at this point about what Christmas might be like in terms of family gatherings, in addition to current restrictions?
Henry: I would say that I don’t do predictions because I’m often humbled by what has happened with this virus. I can say with certainty that we’re not going to be out of the woods completely. So we all have to start thinking now about ways to have those special moments with our family, with our friends, with the people we care about over the holiday season, whichever holiday you celebrate, in a way that’s safe and safe for our elders and safe for those we care most about. And that means a small Christmas, a small nuclear Christmas this year.
Dix: I think, though, it can be a good Christmas this year. I think some of the things we aren’t going to be able to do, there aren’t going to be the holiday parties that involve drinking and that’s maybe not such a bad thing sometimes.
I think we can celebrate and we can find ways to use our imagination with the restrictions on social gathering in place to really recognize Christmas and have a Christmas that we’re going to remember for a long time, because it won’t be like all the others.
How are you two doing personally, now that we are nine months in?
Henry: Oh, dear. I’m still not sleeping much and my anxiety has gone up again. But you know what, we’re all in this together, and I do believe that.
I know we’ve had our challenges and it’s really hard right now but we will get through this. This is not forever and I still believe that people in B.C. are getting through this by being kind to each other, by being compassionate, by caring and that is what will make us all survive this incredible and uncharted year.
Dix: As a bit of an introvert, I’m somewhat better attuned to dealing with COVID-19.
But last night and every night at the end of the night, I call some people, some regular people who are dealing with this.
Last night I talked to four people working at Burnaby Hospital and they had tremendous anxiety. It’s tough there at Burnaby Hospital. They had a fire, as you know, and a serious outbreak of COVID-19. You know what? They were all filled with anxiety and they were concerned and I heard them, but they also all went into work today.
I’m so proud of them and of their courage. They’re amazing people.