COVID-19: Two years in, BC gets mixed reviews for managing pandemic

Experts say BC’s middle-of-the-road approach to COVID restrictions resulted in a low death rate from the disease

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Two years, can you believe it?

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After persevering through 2,953 deaths, canceled surgeries, lockdowns of non-essential businesses, and dramatic changes to how we go about our daily lives — from wearing masks to how we greet one another — British Columbians are finally beginning to see signs of relief.

When the history books look back on our province’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, what will they say?

BC declared a public health emergency on March 17, 2020, now heading into its third year.

According to experts, it managed this pandemic better than most other jurisdictions. The per capita death rate from COVID-19 in BC over the past two years has been 56 per 100,000 population — just over half the Canadian average.

They say a variety of factors contributed to this outcome.

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Dr. Bonnie Henry’s sure-footedness in front of the camera — her repeated admonitions to “be kind, be calm, be safe” — played a role. So did the decision to impose vaccine orders early.

BC’s adoption of lockdown restrictions were, compared to other provinces, measured — middle of the road — never seeing sharp ebbs and flows.

“BC has done well because we have had a really consistent spokesperson in the provincial health officer and the minister of health and they have been cautious but not overcautious and not inflammatory,” said Dr. Perry Kendall, BC’s former provincial health officer.

That’s not to say there weren’t missteps.

Critics complain of a lack of transparency, a reluctance to adapt to new scientific findings and top-down decision-making that jeopardized the health of British Columbians.

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On Wednesday, the province announced it will carry out an independent review and public consultation of its response to the pandemic to “better inform preparations and responses to future emergencies.”

The review, led by three former public servants, is expected to be completed by this fall. It will examine how decisions were made, but will not assess the effectiveness of decisions made by public health officials or of pandemic supports offered to individuals and businesses.

“People are going to criticize you for being overly cautious and others (will) criticize you for not being cautious enough, so you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Kendall.

“I am grateful not to be in Bonnie Henry’s shoes and happy to be on the sidelines, giving my advice from time to time.”

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An Angus Reid Institute report, released Tuesday, found 68 per cent of British Columbians polled said Henry has handled the pandemic well, giving her one of the highest approval ratings in the country.

Dr. David Walker, who chaired Ontario’s expert panel on SARS, said allowing Henry to be the face of the province’s response to COVID-19 was a winning strategy.

“In moments like this, systems become very dependent on individuals and Bonnie Henry is clearly in charge. She is able to communicate in a compassionate and sensitive way and, in terms of crisis communication, that is very important,” he said.

“She smoothed the bumps that some other places had quite well. There was a greater stability compared to other jurisdictions that turned restrictions off and on, and off and on,” he added.

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Charles Breton, the executive director of the Center of Excellence at the Canadian Federation’s Institute for Research on Public Policy, said its figures comparing the severity levels of restrictions among provinces reflects BC’s consistent approach.

“Many provinces’ restrictions were at some point the most stringent in the country — sometimes it was Quebec, sometimes it was Ontario, even Manitoba at one point had the most stringent measures in the country,” said Breton.

“At no point was BC the most stringent. … It was almost always smack in the middle, no matter what wave of the pandemic we were in.”

Breton said BC stood out because it was the first province to introduce vaccine orders.

“And it did it more forcefully than anywhere else, especially when it comes to health-care workers, long-term care workers and the public service,” he said. “BC was not shy to go through with those measures even though other provinces like Quebec and Ontario backed down.”

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Breton added this province was the only one able to keep its schools open through most of the pandemic.

“It was hybrid at first and it was the only province to do that. The rest of the provinces shut their schools down completely for the remainder of the school year in 2020.”

However, lack of transparency around the presence of COVID-19 in schools prompted a group of parents to create the COVID-19 school tracker, which reports on cases in classrooms.

A co-founder of the Safe Schools Coalition, Jennifer Heighton, said parents and teachers like her feel they have been abandoned by public health.

“The rate of transmission in classrooms is not being measured and the only indication it is happening is anecdotal and through the COVID school tracker,” she said. “There seems to be a lot of contradictions in what is happening. They have admitted they can’t keep up with testing, so there will be cases going unreported and that feels unsafe.”

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The province used to rely on health authorities to list schools where exposure to the virus occurred, but it never listed the number of students, teachers or staff that had been exposed or infected.

Now BC does not report any cases in schools, a sharp contrast to provinces like Quebec and Ontario that report all cases by school and Alberta, which provides an interactive map of school cases.

The province’s refusal to provide relevant information hinders people’s ability to judge their risk, according to Dr. Lynn Filiatrault, a retired emergency room physician and a member of Protect Our Province.

“The precautionary principle was ignored, the aerosol issue was ignored, doubling down on droplet dogma and magic Plexiglas didn’t work and thinking vaccination is enough isn’t enough,” said Filiatrault.

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She pointed to an outbreak of the Gamma variant in spring 2021 in Whistler. Local doctors and the mayor were sounding the alarm about rising cases in January, long before the province took action.

“We kept Whistler open until after the March break and at no point did we tell people going up for skiing what their risk was. They were not told the test positivity rate in Whistler so they thought everything was fine.”

By the time the province ordered the ski hills closed, BC had 877 confirmed cases and had the world’s largest outbreak of the Gamma variant outside of Brazil, where it originated.

“It’s not that Dr. Henry is always right or that I have always been right,” Health Minister Adrian Dix told Postmedia. “But our focus was always on the most vulnerable.”

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Some of the most vulnerable, including Jonah McGarva, the co-founder of Long COVID Canada, feel they have been ignored by public health.

“Our group wrote to Dr. Henry in June 2020 about our concerns and what government should do,” he said. “The response was disgusting. It was dismissive and condescending. And we haven’t heard anything since.”

Others like Isobel Mackenzie, BC’s seniors advocate, is more diplomatic in expressing her frustration. Mackenzie and others tried to push Henry to create a vaccine plan for months before one was created and for more than a year before seniors were allowed to have a visitor even during lockdowns.

Mackenzie suggested Henry was not truly forthcoming about the state of rapid testing of staff at long-term care homes, which still has not been implemented as recommended by the advocate.

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“Dr. Henry has said repeatedly that there is ongoing testing of staff at long-term care homes,” said Mackenzie said last year. “But they are testing only symptomatic people. If you think staff in long-term care are being tested with rapid test right now, the answer is ‘no.’”

Dix said the province has included a variety of voices representing business, health, education and seniors in advisory groups from the start.

“What Dr. Henry did was to include enormous numbers of people with dissenting opinions in the various tables,” he explained.

“Ultimately working with everyone and with the consultations, some decisions have to be made and the decisions we made, I think, were the right ones.”

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