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'It's concerning': Dr. Bonnie Henry talks surge of cases, hospitalizations in Northern Health during new interview

Dr. Bonnie Henry talked with PrinceGeorgeMatters about COVID-19's current state in the north and in B.C.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise rapidly in northern B.C. and numerous holiday celebrations around the corner, the provincial health officer says the situation in the north is concerning.

As of publication (Dec. 3), Northern Health has 240 active cases in the region and a total of 905 recorded to date since the pandemic hit the area in March. 

The most concern that lies in the area are hospitalizations, which has a limited amount of care available compared to other health authorities. 

There are currently 33 people hospitalized throughout the north with 12 of those in critical care. There have also been two deaths in the past two days for a regional total of eight. 

Yesterday (Dec. 2) saw 45 cases recorded. the highest single-day amount in Northern Health thus far. 

In a one-on-one interview with PrinceGeorgeMatters today, Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province is working extremely hard to ensure Northern Health has the resources to manage. 

"We're seeing quite a few things," Henry said. "Northern Health has obviously been working on this and trying to understand where transmission is happening."

Travel has been a large cause of transmission with Henry saying lots of people from the north travel for work outside of B.C. and down to the Lower Mainland, but right now, travel within communities is a red flag and contact tracing has become a big challenge.

"There's people going back and forth to other provinces for work on a regular basis and of course back and forth to the Lower Mainland. 

"But there's also travel within communities within the north that is concerning and it's spreading some of the virus as well so all of us have to take a step back and reduce our connections as much as possible right now.

"There's still really important things we can do and Northern Health is keeping up with the contact tracing part but it is getting more challenging.

"So yes, it is concerning. It's concerning because we now have quite a few people who are in hospital in the north and we all know that the capacity in the north for critical care and hospital care is limited and we want to make sure we have the resources for everybody who needs health care in the north."

After our sister Glacier Media site Times Colonist reported on Wednesday that two patients had been moved to Victoria for treatment from Northern Health, the authority confirmed the transports but said the moves are not uncommon. 

Henry says plans have been in the works for months for these types of situations, something Northern Health has also explained.

"Provincial transfer protocols are in place to support patients, and those protocols include strict COVID-19 health and safety measures," spokesperson Eryn Collins said in a news release.

"The provincial and regional plans are in place to deliver care as we see increases in numbers of people in hospital for COVID-19, and to inform how we move people around the region and province - if that’s required."

Henry echoed the same response and explanation. 

"We did do quite a lot of work to make sure we had plans to support people across the north, both for COVID but also for other health conditions if COVID got worse." 

On Nov. 19, Henry made a shocking announcement in mandating masks in all B.C. indoor public and retail spaces, coming after she wrote an editorial just days prior that they already were, although no official provincial health order was in place. 

"Despite how it might appear when we watch the news or go on social media, research shows that most of us in B.C. are doing the right things most of the time," she said.

"Ordering universal mask use in all situations creates unnecessary challenges with enforcement and stigmatization."

Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth announced days later that anyone that does not comply with the order or is belligerent, will be hit with a $230 fine. 

Many wondered what triggered her change of mind and also why masks were not being made mandatory in school. Some also said Henry was being hypocritical. 

She says she stands by her every word while also saying a small, vocal group of people took her words and twisted them. 

"We need to recognize that we learn as we go and I still believe everything I said in the editorial. 

"It's still very important but I was also hearing that people felt they didn't have the tools they needed to have that conversation with people and quite frankly, there's a small group of people who were quite vocal, who took my words and twisted them to sound like I said masks were not helpful and not needed. That is not correct."

Henry said the reason she decided to put a mandatory mask order in place was simple, explaining businesses were struggling to enforce mask-wearing without guidance and more tools from the Ministry of Health and provincial government. 

"So when I heard from many people that this would help them, we put it in place under the public safety emergency act because that is where the support is to be able to assist people in enforcing this. 

"So what I said, in the editorial, still stands that it very much is something that we have learned that is important in those indoor public spaces and that the WorkSafeBC COVID measures and safety plans that are in place for employees, is designed to protect them, but they didn't feel they had the tools they needed so I supported us giving those tools to people."

Parents, teachers and others in the education system have been pressing health officials for reasons why school environments do not have masks mandated. 

She provided answers, in hopes it would provide clarity, believing that, once again, a small group of vocal individuals is undermining the situation. 

While Henry does realize school classrooms and other facilities are indoor spaces, she says people do not come in and out of schools all day, regularly compared to as they would in a shopping mall or grocery store.

"Masks are part of the school safety plan. I think that again is one of those things where there's a small group of the loud voice that undermines that.

"Masks are absolutely part of the COVID safety plans in schools, particularly for the adults in the school setting and for those places where people are passing by, sort of similar to what we see in the workplaces and the public places.

"In my mind, the mask mandate that we've seen in public indoor spaces brings those places up to the same standard that we have in schools. So they are absolutely part of the COVID safety plans in schools and the same exceptions apply. It's very challenging for younger people and we know that young kids sitting in their classroom doing their work and their studies, that having a mask on can be very challenging for some. 

"I think there's a balance that needs to be there and all of the other things that are in place. It's not like they're seeing multiple different people each time they're in their classrooms. They're sitting next to the same people every day, so there are other pieces that are important in the safety plans in schools as well as masks." 

With the north being further away from hotspots, like Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Healths where cases were surging but have since seen a slight drop, Henry understands why some in the region would feel needs here are not as recognized as larger areas. 

She says it's quite the opposite while saying officials are now trying to figure how people in the north will get vaccines in a rapid way once they become available in the province.

"Certainly from my perspective in terms of this pandemic, but also the overdose crisis that we are challenged with across the province, there are parts of the north that are very much affected by both of these crises and it is very front of mind. 

"We have spent quite a lot of time working with our colleagues at Northern Health, making sure they have the resources that we need. I talk about the plan that we put in place to make sure that we could move people if needed sot that everybody could get the healthcare they needed.

"It's absolutely is important for us. We are planning now for how do we make sure we get vaccines when they're available to people in the north in a rapid way. 

Residents in this area are more than aware of the distance between communities, hubs and the struggles that come with it in a very rural area. 

Henry says she's been a strong advocate for stronger, more readily available internet access so people can have options for services and communication with family, friends and professionals. 

"There are also challenges that I know people in the north know about more than anybody else in terms of the distance between places, the challenges of the winter weather and those are all things we need to work together to overcome.

"This pandemic has really exposed some of those inequities that we have seen between communities, between people and in the north for example, one of the things I'm advocating for is consistent broadband access so that people can have remote access to services and have internet that works, that is reliable.

"Those are some of the things we should be pushing for to reduce some of those inequities that have been exposed."

With numerous single-day counts, deaths, hospitalizations and other records being shattered throughout B.C., residents have also seemed confused as to why officials are not returning back to lockdown measures seen in March. 

There are fewer unknowns now compared to last spring when the virus first struck the province, Henry says, adding officials also understand the orders and guidelines, then were extremely hard on numerous people throughout B.C.

"We've learned a lot about this virus, a lot of about how it transmits, about who's most at risk. We've learned how we can manage it in our healthcare system. We know how to provide support for people who are really sick. 

"We've learned quite a bit. We also know that some of the measures that we put in place in March were very hard on families and on Indigenous families, on racialised families, on women in particular so the measures that we've put in place now, are to try and balance what we call those 'unintended negative consequences' from shutting things down and school is a very good example. 

"We know that children not being in classrooms and not having that experience, which is more than just book learning, it's about interacting and social learning and it was very, very hard on families and we heard that across the board. The importance and the value of teaching and education and children being in classrooms, them not being in classrooms affects some children for the rest of their lives."

Weather conditions have made containing the transmission rate and spread of the virus extremely challenging, but right now is when people need to abide by orders and guidelines issued by health officials. 

"What our challenge is right now is that this virus does actually transmit more easily in the weather that we're experiencing now and it's our social interactions where it spreads most rapidly. When we're indoors with people that we're close with where we're not keeping distances. 

"Right now, we really have to pay attention to reducing our social interactions, keeping to our households so that we can keep those essential functions going

Henry also said she empathizes with everyone as holiday celebrations are quickly approaching and the feelings of loneliness, which already occur during this time of year, but with news of vaccines being approved, she's asking British Columbians to do their part.

There's a light on the horizon, she says, but this holiday season is the time, more than ever, when people need to pull together and support each other.

"There's a lot of celebrations coming up. We just had Dawli and we know Hannaukuh is coming and then Christmas. 

"These are times when we want so much to be with the people we love. We want to have those experiences together and this year, more than ever, we need to keep that small. We need to find other safe ways to connect with those people we love and we are close to without being physically close. 

"It's going to be so important for us to get through this next few weeks and through Christmas and New Year's because we do have a light on the horizon. So this is our time to be small, keep our family close and know that we are going to get through this and we have vaccines on the horizon that are going to help us get through this. 

"But it's going to be a few more months yet before we have enough vaccine that we can start having our social interactions again the way that we want to." 

Henry's message?

Be kind, be calm and be safe.