British Columbians have had countless questions about the public health orders recently put in place to curb COVID-19 transmission during the holidays.
Global News held a Facebook Live interview with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix on Monday (Dec. 21) to get answers to questions submitted by our audience.
The following is a transcript of that interview with Global BC reporter Richard Zussman. Parts have been edited for length and clarity.
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Have we seen any examples of the new coronavirus strain found in the U.K. here in British Columbia?
Henry: The short answer is no. But yes, we’ve been watching this very, very carefully. And as we’ve talked about quite a few times, we’ve been doing what we call whole genome sequencing of the viruses that we’ve seen here in British Columbia from the very beginning. The great scientists we have at the BCCDC have been doing this. So when we heard about this new strain arriving in the U.K. — it has 17 different mutations in it. Some of them are more concerning than others. So we went back and looked through all of the virus sequences we have here in B.C. and we do not have the strain that is seen in the U.K. But clearly we need to be on the lookout for it. And we do have some strains that have one or two of the mutations, but none of them that are the same as what they’re seeing in the U.K. right now.
Are we worried that the vaccine does not protect us from this new strain?
Henry: Right now, that does not seem to be the case. So those are the things we worry about: Does it cause more severe disease? Does it transmit more easily? And there’s some evidence that this mutation allows it to attach to our receptors more easily, which means it probably transmits more easily, but it doesn’t seem to cause more severe disease. And so far, it looks like the vaccine is OK, too.
Are we confident, Minister Dix, about the action the federal government has taken in terms of flights? Is there a concern here that we would like to see those restrictions last a little bit longer from the UK?
Dix: They can always change and add to those restrictions, but we were obviously pleased to see the action taken by the federal government yesterday. It was absolutely the right action. And we’ll see if they’re going to obviously keep reviewing that decision. And it’s very possible that those restrictions could continue.
Can you please give us further thoughts on delaying the start of school in January for at least two weeks?
Henry: We’re looking at it all the time and what are the things that we need to do. And I think what we’ve seen here in B.C. is (that) things are leveling off. They’re obviously at a higher level than we would like and we’re going to be talking about that later this week to present our modelling and the things that are happening here. But really, we know this virus is transmitted by people, to people, and it’s our behaviors that are so important.
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So that’s why people need to take a step back this holiday season and we need to stay small, stay with our households — not going, traveling, not having those parties that we so want to have at this time of year. Because that is so important for preventing transmission and it’s transmission to the people we’re closest to and the people that we care about.
Is there still confidence that kids are safe (in schools)? And do we ever truly know specifically how many kids have contracted the virus through a school?
Henry: We have a lot of that information. And yes, we know the things that we have in place — the multiple layers that reduce the intermingling in schools — mean that schools are a very safe place for kids, much safer than many other situations.
And we know that that’s one of the reasons we want to keep our schools open because there are so many benefits for young people being in the classroom. It’s way more than just reading and writing. It’s all about their … emotional and social growth. And that is important. We heard from parents very clearly — 80 per cent of parents across the province from every strata — that having kids home was really challenging for families, and families suffered in March and April. So we need to put in place the important things that keep those important environments.
I hear from teachers about their concerns. Absolutely. But I also get a lot of notes from kids, from teachers, from parents about how things are working really well. And we have to remember, there’s 600,000 kids in our system across the province. There’s been very few outbreaks and very few transmission events and lots of kids getting the learning and the support that they need.
The (BC Teachers’ Federation) has called for the same thing again and again — a more virtual setting, less kids in the classroom, more masks. What is your response to these teachers who feel unsafe in their workplace?
Henry: All of the schools, all of the plans, have been based on a few simple layers of protection. And every school has a team that includes parents, teachers, superintendents. They’re the ones that put the measures in place in their schools. And we know that for the most part, those are working.
Dix: Those are exactly the things that we have put in place that I think Dr. Henry has said is really important. How important it is that children are in school, how we talk about their safety in school. We’re talking about their whole safety and how important that is in a society like ours, that every jurisdiction in the world is reopened school for the same reason — reopening schools is important. The fact that we’ve had relatively few outbreaks is a real tribute to the members of the BCTF, to the members of the community, to parents and administrators and the children and youth themselves, the teenagers themselves who are in schools. It’s a tribute to all of these people.
I understand there’s anxiety. I feel anxiety. Dr Henry feels anxiety. We’re anxious too. So I have no judgment about the anxiety. It’s important. It’s important we hear from people and their concerns all the time. I think we’ve got to continue to work, and we work every day. We will continue to have an open-door policy, which we’ve had since March, about education, but also about the pandemic and information about the pandemic in B.C.
Henry: We constantly are reevaluating whether we need to do additional things, change things, what it is that we need to do. But we also know that people in B.C. are following the restrictions that are in place for the most part, and that’s making the difference.
Dix: It is important to know this isn’t (about) schools, it’s about hospitals. Right now, our hospital capacity is about 88 per cent. Normally it’s over 100 per cent this time of year. So in other words, more capacity than we have normally in our hospital system. That doesn’t mean they’re not under great stress. They are. COVID-19 puts everyone under great stress and especially hospitals and long-term care homes. But we made preparations in the spring and the decision to cancel all non-urgent scheduled surgeries because we weren’t sure what the impact would be on hospitals and on ICU.
Well, now we have a better idea. It’s very challenging and we are sort of preparing for the worst. But we are making decisions based on the evidence and that will continue to be the case. That’s why we continue to provide regular modelling presentations to people. And I understand the concern, but we are doing everything we can based on the evidence to make the right decisions for people in B.C. And we’re going to continue to do so.
One of the questions we’re getting the most is around shopping malls and holidays. And so this one’s from (Global BC viewer) Emily Nicole: Why is no one keeping count of how many people are going in and out of shopping centers? Why can’t we be with our family but the mall can be absolutely packed with people?
Henry: We spend (limited time) in a shopping mall, in a retail outlet, with our masks on. Yes, there are restrictions in numbers of people who can be in stores and we’ve been upgrading the enforcement of COVID safety plans as well. But we don’t have those things in place in our home. When we’re in our home, we don’t have our barriers, we don’t keep our physical distance, we take our masks off. And those are, unfortunately, the environments where this spreads. Where we’re spending a short period of time walking past somebody in a mall — that is not where we’re seeing transmission happening. Our homes are not safer than being outside or being in a retail shop for now.
Is there any consideration being done to put additional restrictions in place for Dec. 26, which is historically the busiest shopping day of the year in this country?
Henry: We have restrictions in retail and what they can do and how they can do it. Go to your local store where they have restrictions in place. We have the mask mandates now. So these are the times where people need to make their own wise decisions.
(Global BC viewer) Dora Groumoutis wants to know if her family can come over for Christmas dinner, remove masks only to eat, and everyone sits apart from each other. Is that allowed?
Henry: I will go back to what I said all along. The whole intent of this order is for us to stay close to our households. And the other part of it, which I’ve said again and again, is we don’t want people to be alone over Christmas. So, yes, we have to make some concessions. We know that there are people who have shared custody and that by necessity means that there are children going back and forth to different households. So people need to do what they need to do to make sure that nobody is alone over Christmas and that they can support each other. But they need to be aware that these are the situations where we transmit this virus and there’s still way too much of this virus in our community right now. So we don’t want to be the one who passes it on to our auntie or our grandmother.
We have a vaccine that’s come. We have a way out in the future. So we need to take those sacrifices right now and find ways that we can connect with our family and connect with our people remotely and safely.
Henry: There are still essential reasons why people need to travel, whether it’s to check up on family members or medical appointments. What people need to do is be very aware that you take the risk coming from where you’re coming from and you take that where you’re going and you bring that risk back from where you’ve been.
So if you’re going to a place where there’s a lot of transmission of the virus, and there are many communities across this country where that is the case, then you need to stay away from others, particularly anybody who is at risk of having severe illness. And you need to take the precautions of cleaning your hands and wearing masks and staying away when you get back.
We need to be very, very clear about not going to communities that aren’t ready to take on that risk right now. So there are many First Nations communities where traveling to communities can be very risky for people and they have asked people to stay away. We need to respect that.
(Global BC viewer) Mark Belanger wants to know: If (Premier) John Horgan and Adrian Dix do not know Dr. Henry’s definition of “household,” how should anyone expect to know? This comes from a comment the premier made last week that you, Minister Dix, had told him it was OK for his son and daughter-in-law to come over for Christmas. He has since decided not to do that. Did you give him that advice that was OK?
Dix: I think the premier did all the right things. He wanted to know (if that was OK), he checked it out, he asked me. In the end, they’re not coming over. And he’s having Christmas just with his spouse. And he made the right decision.
And I got it wrong. I sometimes get it wrong. I’m not infallible. When he talked to me, I got it wrong. And that’s just the way it goes. I’m sorry about that to the premier, but I think he got it right. I think that the rules aren’t complicated. The rules aren’t difficult. Sometimes we put our own complications into the analysis of those rules and we shouldn’t.
In my own case, I’ll be having dinner on Christmas Day with Renee, just with Renee. I think for the first time in maybe 36 years, we won’t be seeing my mom at Christmas. In fact, I have not seen her in this calendar year because of COVID-19. My mother-in-law is in long-term care and it’s a very difficult time. So it’s going be a difficult Christmas for me, just like for everybody else.
(To Henry) And how are you celebrating?
Henry: I’m going to be cooking for one at home and spending time with some of my family by Zoom calls.
(Global BC viewer) Nadia Guerreiro wants to know once a senior receives the two doses of the vaccine, can relatives visit them even if they haven’t received their vaccines yet?
Henry: The short answer is probably, and that’s why we’re focusing on people most at risk. We know that people who get sick and who are dying from this virus are overwhelmingly in long-term care.
So right now, with the challenges we have with the Pfizer vaccine, we can’t move it away from the point of arrival. We’re hoping that will change soon. So we’re focusing on the health-care workers that are supporting people in long-term care. We’re focusing on those most at-risk and people working in long-term care and some of the health-care workers who are working on the COVID response.
Can you describe the process for vaccinating the older population — those not in long-term care? When’s the start date for that?
Henry: We just found out today how much vaccine we’re going to get the week of Jan. 4. So we don’t know the next week how much vaccine we’re going to get or the next week or the next week. It changes very rapidly.
We do know that we’re going to be getting more Pfizer vaccine. It sounds like probably not as much as we had originally thought we were going to get in the first few months. So that changes the time that we can tell people. What we do know is that we expect to be able to immunize about 300,000 to 400,000 people in the first three months of 2021 with both the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine.
Our focus is on long-term care (and) people who work in long-term care and hospitals. Then we move into other people who are at high-risk of getting sick and dying. People over age 80 is what we’re starting with. We’re hopeful that in the second quarter or so after March is when we’ll start looking at people in other groups.
For people in their 80s, the hope is what, mid-January or early February?
Henry: Depending on how much vaccine we get, yes.
Dix: What we’re going to continue to do is, as soon as the information becomes available, we’re going to provide that information to people. It’s going to be very exciting this week because all of our health authorities are going to get their first Pfizer vaccine. So we’re going to see it in Northern Health and Interior Health and Vancouver Island.
If somebody who works in long-term care decides not to get the vaccine, can they continue to work on long-term care?
Henry: Certainly right now, absolutely. We don’t have mandatory immunization. But it doesn’t mean that you can let go of the other things that we know work to prevent transmission. We don’t yet know if this vaccine stops people from being able to transmit the virus. We think it does, but we don’t have the data to support that yet. So you still have to wear masks. We’ll still have to do the hand-cleaning and the distancing for the next number of months. So anybody who is not immunized will need to continue those things.
Why are we trailing in terms of testing compared to other jurisdictions?
Henry: We have always targeted our testing to make sure that those people who actually need a test — where it makes a difference for the things that they do and for their care — get the test they need. We’ve ramped up our testing capacity. And, yes, we are using the rapid tests as well — they only became available and licensed for use very recently in Canada. And we are looking at how we can optimize where they can provide benefit. We’re using them in a number of situations and have been for several weeks, whether it’s the Downtown Eastside (or) more remote communities. We’ll continue to look at how we can use those.
(Global BC viewer) Norma Mansell Dauvin wants to know: What about seniors with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD? Is there a way for people who have certain health conditions to determine where they land on the vaccine rollout list?
Henry: We have looked at this in a lot of detail across the country and other countries have too. And the bottom line is, if you have COPD and you’re 80, you’re at more risk than if you have COPD and you’re 70. The most important marker for risk is age. So we are looking at coming down in increments of age as vaccine becomes available.
And yes, right now the two vaccines are what we call messengerRNA vaccines. They are new technology and we’re not sure how that will affect people whose immune systems are compromised. And there’s two different types of people in that category: people who are on medications for cancer treatments and others, and people with autoimmune disorders who are taking certain medications. And we’re still trying to figure out which vaccines are for which group and which ones we can do a risk-benefit analysis for.
Why doesn’t B.C. release daily COVID numbers like other jurisdictions in Canada?
Henry: We certainly work seven days a week, but we do try and give our epidemiologists a break on the weekends so we just get very basic numbers. It takes quite a lot of time and effort to pull together all of the information that we put in their statements or releases. So we made the very conscious decision to give people a break so that we can cycle through.
Now, our last question. How do you deal with a population that is increasingly becoming more tired and frustrated with following basic guidelines?
Henry: You know, it’s normal. And this is something we expected. It’s hard for all of us. I’m tired of this. If there was one simple thing we could do that would make this go away, I would have done it months ago. But the reality is that we’re changing. We’re learning. We’ve learned that this virus transmits a whole lot easier in the winter and that makes us all have to do things that we didn’t have to do in the summer.
It’s really hard. And I get that. I know that. But we do also have light at the end of the tunnel. And there is an end now. It’s not going to be next week, but there is an end, so we can do this and we know we can get through this. We’ve been through worse in the last few months. We need to remember that we have this positive piece.
Dix: What amazes me every day is how strong people are, how willing they are to do things that we’ve never done before. You know, the church a block from my house — 5,000 people went on an average Sunday in 2019 and now they don’t go. Yet their spiritual life continues.
I see people in the street every day who tell me how hard it is, but also the things that they’re doing to keep going. I am unbelievably inspired by people in this pandemic. I think the people of B.C. have been extraordinary.
I add to that the inspiration of people who work with us, who work on our team, who work in long-term care, who work in hospitals, who work in grocery stores, who go into work and do their thing with such courage and bravery and joy and good sense in the hardest year we’ve seen as a province in health-care in my lifetime. So there’s a lot of joy and a lot to celebrate. And I’ll be thinking of them at Christmastime. I think people in B.C. should be very proud of themselves and what they’ve done in this most difficult of years.