British Columbia·Analysis

Is it young people who need to focus on individual responsibility in B.C.'s pandemic, or is it John Horgan?

Caroline Colijn, a COVID-19 modeller at Simon Fraser University who warned about a variant-influenced surge arriving in March, said Horgan's own strategy carried some responsibility.

Premier puts onus on people in their 20s and 30s, 2 weeks after saying ‘we're on the right track'

B.C. Premier John Horgan said at a Monday news briefing that young people are putting the province 'in a challenging position', when it comes to the pandemic. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

This story was updated April 22, 2021, to add data and context.

"Don't blow this for the rest of us," said John Horgan.

The B.C. premier said this Monday afternoon, at the beginning of a press conference where the province announced its most extensive restrictions — called a three-week "circuit breaker" — since the height of the first wave. 

Indoor restaurant service, shut down. Group fitness activities, gone. Promised indoor religious services, once again delayed indefinitely. The end of ski season at Whistler, now suddenly here. 

The reason, the premier said, was mostly because young people aren't doing enough.

"We need to redouble our efforts, to focus on individual responsibility for the greater good," he said.

"The cohort from 20 to 39 are … quite frankly, putting the rest of us in a challenging position."

Leave aside the fact that young people are often in the most precarious jobs where they have no choice but to be at high risk of transmission.

When Horgan made his comments, people from 20 to 39 had been making up 43 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in the province for a number of days — but through the course of the pandemic, it had been 41 per cent, and has been around that number most weeks for around nine months. 

In other words, the generational responsibility for COVID-19 in B.C. hadn't changed much, but Horgan's tone suddenly did.

And Caroline Colijn, a COVID-19 modeller at Simon Fraser University who warned about a variant-influenced surge arriving in March, said the premier's own strategy carried some responsibility.

"We've done a halfway [measures] thing for nine months," said Coljin.

"It's frustrating that we didn't do more in hindsight." 

Siri, define 'exponential' 

"You can review the tape," said Horgan, when asked by CBC News if he regretted saying B.C. was "on the right track" 12 days ago, perhaps giving people a false impression their collective actions were working. 

"We have not been popping champagne corks here," protested the premier. 

"We have been giving hope to people that the hard work of British Columbians … was paying dividends, but we needed to be vigilant. And the evidence is now in that we have not met that test."

Is B.C. on the right track despite 'exponential' COVID-19 transmission?

3 years ago
Duration 1:28
Premier John Horgan evaded answering directly, instead saying British Columbians must follow the provincial orders to the letter, and not just in spirit.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made much the same argument — B.C. was in a precarious but acceptable place in its battle for awhile, but suddenly, things shifted.

"Our balance in B.C. is now off," she said. 

"In the last six days we've seen the start of exponential growth in new cases."

But that's not how exponential growth works. And Colijn argues the government missed an opportunity to prevent a third wave. 

"It is frustrating," she said. 

"We had border measures … and I think those are potentially very powerful, but they came a little too late, and at the same time we weren't able to stamp [out] the B117 expansion, and now we're facing the consequences of that."

And the numbers bear that out. 

Vaccinations have rapidly reduced deaths due to the virus in B.C. since the middle of December. But all other key metrics the province uses — rolling average of new cases, active cases and people under active monitoring and hospitalizations — starting going up in the middle of February. 

There was never a period longer than a couple of days where they were going down. And now, here we are. 

Or, as Colijn put it, "the total doesn't look exponential until the small thing gets big."

What comes next?

Colijn said in the short term, an increase in cases is likely because numbers reflect transmission in the community a week ago. 

"In three weeks relatively little will have changed … closing something today may be effective, and may be a great idea, but it won't change that people got infected yesterday and aren't sick yet," she said.

After the three weeks? 

Case counts could come down, as they have after other times strong restrictions have come in, or they could rise, based on the strength of the variants and people's pandemic fatigue.

Vaccinating more than 20,000 people every day could start to put a dent in general transmission and the potential of widespread hospitalizations, or the virus could prove to be stubborn for awhile longer, further eroding people's mental health and patience for following guidelines. 

It could be a short-term change that's quite effective, similar to the first wave in B.C. Or a change that the government originally says will last for weeks and turns into months, like with the second wave

"They're not circuit breakers, they're just measures that are in place. And without a strategic plan to get out of them, they're going to have to stay in place until something changes," said Colijn.

It's another two weeks of doubt, after more than a year of fighting a pandemic with measures that never open everything up or shut everything down.

"We've come a great distance, but we cannot blow it now," said Horgan.

Left unsaid was whether those words were better directed at 20 and 30 somethings, or to himself.