As It Happens·Q&A

Dr. Bonnie Henry says we'll get through 2nd wave because 'people in Canada listen'

Dr. Bonnie Henry says Canadians will get through the pandemic together because people in this country listen to public health officials and do what needs to be done in order to protect themselves and others. 

As COVID-19 cases spike in Ontario and Quebec, B.C.'s top doctor says Canadians know what to do

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says Canadians can get through a second wave of COVID-19 infections because we know what to do and we've done it before. (Ben Nelms/CBC)


Dr. Bonnie Henry says Canadians will get through the pandemic together because people in this country listen to public health officials and do what needs to be done in order to protect themselves and others. 

Henry, B.C.'s public officer of health, announced on Monday that after a period of rising COVID-19 cases, the province is starting to flatten its curve once again. B.C. reported 110 new cases on Thursday.

But the same isn't true across the country. On Thursday, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the second wave COVID-19 is showing up in Canada as a series of regional epidemics. In Quebec, officials reported 1,078 cases on Thursday, while Ontario reported 797, setting a new daily record. 

Still, Henry remains confident in Canadians' ability to weather the storm. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. 

Dr. Henry, what's it been like for you to hear from Canada's top doctor that there's been a 40 per cent increase in daily COVID-19 numbers right across the country this week compared to last?

That is very concerning. It is something that, obviously, we've been watching across the country since we all moved into summer and started re-starting activities.

We started to see increases a few weeks ago here in British Columbia, and have taken some measures. But, you know, I think right now we need to recognize that we need to find ways to live with this virus, to ensure that we have important things like many of our businesses, like schools back in, and still be able to manage with the virus circulating [in] hopefully as low levels as possible in our community.

As you say, we've seen a rise in numbers in B.C. Not nearly as much as we're seeing in Quebec and Ontario. How concerned are you that that sort of growth that we've seen in Quebec and Ontario could come to B.C.?

This is something that we're all wrestling with.

We're trying to find that balance between keeping open as much as we can, because we know that that's important for the health of our community, and having the public health resources to manage every single case, and especially clusters of cases and outbreaks that we know happen in our long-term care homes, and to be able to detect and get on them really, really quickly.

I think the other thing that we're seeing, of course, is that testing has increased across the country. The demographics of people who've been affected has been changed. But we know that even when young people — who mostly have very mild illness and recover — but when we have lots of people sick, it's going to spill over into more vulnerable populations. And that's the balance we have to find.

And as you try to figure out that balance, do you have a sense of what begins to matter more? Is it the raw number of cases? Or the growth in the number of cases? Or the hospitalizations, or the deaths, or the ICUs? Or is it just sort of putting them all on the table and trying to figure out where we are in the curve?

It really is about the growth in cases, but also importantly the impact on the health system.… Very important is hospitalizations and very important is our ICU care. So we want to make sure that we don't overwhelm our health system.

The other thing that is really important is: How do we do prevention? We know that there are personal things that we need to do, and then there's community things that we need to do.

Every single time we clean our hands, we cover our mouths when we cough, wear a mask, keep our safe distance, and stay away from others when we're sick, those are the key things that we do as individuals that protect us and our family, but also protect our community.

The other thing that we know about this virus now, though, is that most people will only spread to one or nobody, but some people spread to large numbers of people. And we need to get rid of … the opportunities for that to happen. And that's why we've paid attention to things like large gatherings, to places like banquet halls and nightclubs, because those were environments where we were seeing this virus being transmitted to large numbers of people. So we need to stop those environments where those types of transmission events can happen.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam says Canada's second wave is coming in the form of regional outbreaks (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

I'm sure you read the editorial in the Globe today that was calling on Ontario's Premier Doug Ford to take a page from B.C. and allow medical experts like you to lead the pandemic news conferences and the messaging around it. How important do you think it is that people get their information primarily from public health experts right now and not, in fact, get that information from politicians?

I can't really comment on how things are going and how things are done in Ontario, but I will say that here, we have a very strong relationship with the political side. And we've also been able to work very closely with experts at the B.C. CDC, at our lab, [and] in the health-care system. So we have a very strong team to be able to put those communication messages out.

What kind of a toll has this year and this work and this whole situation taken on you?

All of us have found this hard. It's gone on a long time. But, you know, the things that we do in our community — even when we're physically staying apart — to connect with each other is what helps us all get through this. And I'm very lucky. I have family. I have friends and, you know, my work colleagues as well.

When we do this, we support each other. And that's what we all need to do. When we talk about our mental health, the resiliency that we have in our community, our ability to get through this type of a crises, this type of a storm, really depends on our connecting with each other and supporting each other. And that's what we need to focus on to get us through these next few months.

You've even received some death threats through this.

When people are in crises, sometimes lashing out and being angry is one of their ways of responding to the anxiety and the uncertainty. And it's, I mean, it's never right, and I worry about my family and others.

But I'm not alone in this. And for the most part, I just think people have been incredibly positive. And it's that positive part and that's support that we can give to each other that we're going to need to keep up in this next few months.

We do know what we need to do. We are able to do it. We've been there before.- Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C. provincial health officer

Your guidance has ... been lauded by so many people through this. I think the New York Times called you the "Top Doctor Who Aced The Coronavirus Test." ... As you look back over the course of the last many months, and look at your leadership through this pandemic, is there anything that you look back and wish you could get a do-over on?

There's lots of things.

I always say there's going to be the recriminations and the class action lawsuits and the public inquiries. But really, what we need to do is recognize that we don't always have all the answers and be able to give the best information that we can.

And I think, you know, as public health leaders across this country, we've done a pretty good job on that. And Canada has done a good job on that.

But part of this also is that people in Canada listen. And we do know what we need to do. We are able to do it. We've been there before. It's really hard right now because it seems like it's going on a long time. But we're not in this alone. The global community is going through this as well.

In a crisis, words do matter. And so, you know, being kind matters. It means treating another person with respect because we don't always know their story. And being calm is a way that we help settle ourselves as well as showing our compassion for others. And that's really important. Those are the things that keep us safe.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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