As It Happens·Q&A

B.C. health minister asks people to hunker down during surge in coronavirus variants

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix is asking people to stick to the basics of COVID-19 safety as the province faces a surge of more transmissible coronavirus variants. 

Adrian Dix says the variants spread faster, but the solution is the same — avoid indoor social interaction

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix is asking people to mask up, stay home and limit contacts as the province faces a surge of more transmissible coronavirus variants. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Story Transcript

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix is asking people to stick to the basics of COVID-19 safety as the province faces a surge of more transmissible coronavirus variants

So far, the province has identified two variants in the province — B117, first detected in the U.K., and P1, which spread rapidly in Brazil. 

Cases of the P1 variant close to doubled over the Easter weekend, and doctors say it spread faster than the original strain of COVID-19, comes with a higher mortality rate, and affects younger people.

The new infections have prompted the provincial government to return to what it's calling a circuit-breaker lockdown. Here is part of Dix's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Minister Dix, what makes you think the same lockdown measures are going to work against these new variants of the virus in British Columbia? 

The same things we need to do to fight COVID-19 are the same things we need to do to stop the variants, which is limit indoor contact; so only to our household. These are the rules that have been in place for a while, and these are the rules that have to continue to be in place. 

We've done more whole-genome sequencing in B.C. than I think anywhere else. And so we have a sense that the variants are there and they're significant. 

But these variants, in particular ... P1, it's very aggressive, isn't it? And it's going after young people [and it's] more infectious. You're getting young people in hospital in bad states. So is it really just the same lockdown, or do you have to do something different? Do you have to identify where the problems are for the people who are being infected by it? 

What we're doing here is what we've been doing all along, but even more aggressively — contact tracing, testing and support for people who are linked to people with variants, and so on. 

What we are seeing right now is an increase in the severity. So not an increase in the rate of hospitalization, but the subset of people who are hospitalized, who require critical care, is somewhat higher. 

But many of the same things that have always been true about COVID-19 and about the variants still are true. It still affects, obviously, our elders more. But it affects everybody. 

The cases were already surging before the Easter weekend, and yet in British Columbia, you know better than I, large numbers of people were on the move. And you'll probably see the results of all that non-essential travel at some point later. Was there more you could have done to have made it clear to people not to go visiting at Easter? 

I think most people are following the rules, and often those that don't, especially when it happens outside and it's visible, that has an impact. But I think that the steps that have been taken in B.C. are pretty strong.

This is a public health order. It's the law. You cannot socialize indoors with people outside of your immediate household. Those are strong rules. 

In addition, last week, we added an additional circuit breaker, ending in-person dining or inside dining in restaurants. We made some changes to fitness classes and to the fitness industry as well, and continued not having church services. 

So these are significant steps, and really it's us and the vaccines against COVID-19. And it's very challenging, I think — it's been going on for a year — to feel like you're taking a step back. But really, we have a month here where all of us have to do a little bit more, follow public health orders a little bit more, and I'm hopeful that people will respond to that. 

Other parts of Canada, and I wonder if this is the same in B.C., the questions are being asked: When you shut down restaurants and you limit that activity, is that what your data says is the source of these infections? 

It's a source of some of them. But really what we're saying is that the things that were possible in February or in October or in August are not possible now with this level of transmission. So we're adding new layers of protection. We're saying that the problem is inside, not outside, and that we want to limit social activity inside. 

Restaurants have done a very good job in B.C. They haven't generally been a large source of transmission. But right now, in April of 2021, we have a significant issue of transmission, high levels of positivity, and that requires new actions. 

The vaccine programs are going very well. The only issue with vaccines in this country is the amount of vaccines. Obviously, we'd like to have as much as we could. We'd like to have much more. But we're just dealing with what we have, and those have been effectively delivered here and, I think, elsewhere. But it's going to take some time for those vaccines to have an effect on transmission rates.

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But again, focusing on the social activity as being the source of infection. Premier [John] Horgan was pointing the finger at partiers, telling them, "Don't blow [this for the rest of us]." You said the restaurants. And yet in B.C., as in Ontario, is it not a higher source of infection in food plants, in shipping companies? Do you have data that actually shows that it's the social activities and not the work activities that might be the source of your infections? 

It's both.

So then what are you doing about that?

On the food plants, we focused vaccination on those industries, on food production and on food processing, in the last number of weeks. Now, it's 21 days before a vaccine takes effect, but we've targeted that because we have vulnerable workers, and those workplaces have been a significant source of transmission. 

So to the extent that we can — because our main vaccination program is age-based, because that's where the vulnerability is — we've used the vaccine to address some of the specific areas. Of course, we only have the vaccine that we have. But we've used the vaccine that we have quite efficiently to try and address some of these problems. 

The opposition health critic in British Columbia, Renee Merrifield, has accused you of hiding the facts about where these outbreaks are taking place, saying, and this is a quote, "We need to know where this is happening. We need to know why this is happening. It helps us govern our behaviours." Why not share more of the data we have? 

We have. We shared an enormous amount of data in B.C. It's not à la carte. But it's a significant amount of data. We've done significant whole-genome sequencing. Of course, we do the testing. We do regular briefings. We do regular briefings for the Opposition in advance of any action. And we're going to continue to do that.

Health-care workers administer the COVID-19 vaccine to members of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation in B.C. on March 25, 2021. Minister Dix says the province is doing a good job of distributing the vaccines it has access to. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

If you're doing the contact tracing, as you mentioned, do you know more about where the sources are? And are you sharing all the data you're getting from those contact tracing? 

Every case is followed up thoroughly by public health officials. Obviously, there's privacy about individual cases, so we don't use the data we have to shame people. Because there's no shame in being sick. Presidents and prime ministers have got sick, and they have large groups around them that are there to protect them, and yet still got sick with COVID-19. It's a vicious, nasty virus. 

But absolutely, we've been clear from the beginning, from last March ... it's indoor social and indoor workplace circumstances where we've seen the largest level of transmission. And people at this time, with this level of transmission in our province and in our country and in much of the world, have take all the precaution they can.

Be safe and be kind, and we can get through what are going to be three or four very difficult weeks.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC British Columbia. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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