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Q&A: Dr. Bonnie Henry on pandemic lessons learned and her optimism for the future

Q&A: The public face of B.C.’s struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic shares lessons learned, scary surprises, and her optimism about the months ahead
Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry: “that approach of us doing this together helps people recover from the trauma of the crisis that we’re going through”. Photo via Royal Roads University

Bonnie Henry is the 2020 Glacier Media Newsmaker of the Year. It was an easy decision.

Henry, a physician with a background in community medicine, is a clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia and was appointed provincial health officer in 2018. She has earned an international reputation for her leadership from the outset of the pandemic in guiding British Columbia and influencing other jurisdictions on the measures needed to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Her candid, calm, empathic daily direction and a prescribed mixture of public restrictions and permissions helped B.C. flatten the curve earlier than most everywhere and has kept the caseload more manageable, even as people spent more time indoors and were more susceptible to spreading the coronavirus.

Business in Vancouver’s Hayley Woodin, Tyler Orton and Kirk LaPointe spoke with Henry across Zoom on behalf of Glacier Media in early December, one week before the first vaccines arrived in B.C. Here is an excerpt of their discussion, edited for clarity and brevity.

Take us back to how you had to expand the work of the office at the first sign of the pandemic.

Henry: We have a very small office and still do. We tend to be very small and nimble. But we started to see the warning signs in late December, early January, and it was a bit of disbelief that we had to overcome. This is something that I have spent a lot of time on in my career over the last 30 years, preparing for things like this and seeing the signs and knowing what could potentially happen. It was quite challenging for all of us, I think, to really get going and to understand that this was going to affect us. But I don’t think anybody could have predicted how severely it would affect us around the world.

I think it would be fair to say that as this pandemic has evolved, so too have people’s attitudes toward the provincial government and your office and the general handling of the pandemic. When do you think that honeymoon period ended after the initial praise?

Henry: This is also something that was not a surprise to me. We know that when you go through crises, there’s a transition period that happens. But I’ve been saying from the very beginning that I know that the recriminations, the class action lawsuits and the public inquiries are coming. And I know that because I have been through these before. And we have seen these things before. So yes, [the honeymoon ended] very early on. What we tried to do was instill that ... we do have some control, there are things that we can do, but we need to support each other to do it. And when we didn’t know what was happening, and it was very scary for all of us, [with] a lot of anxiety and uncertainty – that is what helped us get through. And we did really well with that. The challenge becomes when this goes on for a long time. And there’s changes, things that are we’re learning ... that are changed from one minute to the next. And as we came into the fall, [we] tried to make sure that we were opening up as much as we could, doing it in a safe way. And it’s tiring, we’re all exhausted, so it doesn’t surprise me at all when there’s a lot of fear and anxiety, that people need somebody to complain to, somebody to be concerned about. And I knew that was part of my role in this whole thing. We know with this type of crisis that goes on this long, you can never do just enough. There are always people who are accusing us of doing too much, or not enough, and finding that balance is incredibly difficult and changing minute by minute.

When you look back at the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto, what was the most significant learning experience that you took away that you were able to apply to the response to this 2020 pandemic?

Henry: I think the one thing that really stuck with me was how hard it was for people, but how [important was] the communications around how we can support each other, coming out with that positive message to people – recognizing that most people, if we tell you why we need you to do something, we give people the data, give people what we know, and give people the means to do it, then most people will come along with us. And in a crisis, you know, I’ve seen this repeatedly and from 2003, in particular, there are different ways people react. The way that we communicate together and serve each other helps drive up that altruistic need that we have. And people do really care about each other. And appealing to that, and ensuring that we put that [at the] forefront, as opposed to putting in restrictions…. That approach of us doing this together helps people recover from the trauma of the crisis that we’re going through. And resilience is, you know, what we need to get through this and how we can recover from this.

So Dr. Henry, what would have been the biggest surprises along the way?

Henry: Oh, it’s all sort of new and scary. When we first had cases in our long-term care home, it just gave me such a sinking feeling, because I knew when viruses like this get into the care homes, that people will succumb to the virus, and people will die. Some of the surprises are how people have recognized me and taken some of the words to heart, and that people are being kind with each other. And that has resonated with people. And the whole message of not knowing everybody’s story, and not jumping to conclusions about people, and that we can support each other and get through this. And it’s been a positive surprise, in many ways. On the technical side of things, I’ve been so happy and surprised by how quickly we’ve got a vaccine. I knew it could be done. But my time horizon was, you know, early into next year, and the fact that we have a vaccine that’s coming here to B.C. next week [editor’s note: it has since arrived] has been the most positive surprise I’ve had.

You mentioned the word balance earlier. At this point in time, our economy is relatively open compared to what’s happening in some other provinces. Why is that?

Henry: We early on recognized that there are unintended consequences of shutting things down and that we needed to support families and communities by allowing as much as we could to continue safely. So one of the things we did early on was put in place an order calculator, or provincial health officer order around every business having to have a COVID safety plan. And it just made everybody focus on what are the things that I need to do for my place now. And we’ve taken a lot of steps working with WorkSafeBC, with our environmental health officers, to work with businesses to make things work. And we’ve recognized that as the virus becomes more transmissible at this time of year, some of those safety plans need to be adjusted and stopped. And there’s some things that are just too risky right now. But you know, that was a focus that allowed everybody to have some control over their environment, and to look at how we could put in safety plans. And it’s helped a lot. I think about some of the big industrial complexes that we have in the North – the fact that we planted, you know, 30 million trees this summer with not a single case in the multiple thousands of young people who were working up in the silviculture camps in the North and remote areas. These were because we paid attention to some of these details that allow these important things to happen. And the other really critical one: we know that when schools are closed, families and children suffer, and we heard that loud and clear from families in March, so we spent a lot of time making sure that schools were a safe place for educators and for students. And that allows parents, as well, to have that breathing room so that they can continue working and others. 

I think the pandemic has been very mentally draining and physically exhausting for people. But I think people are also curious about you. Expand on how you personally decompress or try to relax while this is all going on.

Henry: Yeah, I haven’t had a whole lot of relaxation, actually. One of those things, I grind my teeth a lot, especially at night. But I do try. I mean, all of us need to. It is a long, long road that we’re on. So it is important. And early on, I was talking to a young reporter from CBC, and we were talking about meditating and taking deep breaths and calming ourselves. And that is something that I do. I try and meditate for short periods every day. Sometimes it’s three o’clock in the morning when I’m in bed. I’m also a runner. And from the very beginning, we said to people: get outside, go outside, that is so important for our mental health, as well as our physical health. It’s [not only] your family right now, but your close friends, but outside is safer than inside. And we just need that release to go for 15 minutes a day. And I try and keep up with my running, not always successfully, especially now I go in the mornings, and it’s still so dark. But those are the things that really keep me going.

I doubt that you have a routine day. But are there patterns of a support system, daily input, daily consultation, that you have now?

Henry: My days tend to start early. I’m part of a group with the World Health Organization that’s been working on pandemic issues for years. And it tends to meet Geneva time. So that’s about 4:30 in the morning for us, usually. So some days start that early, most days starting around 5:30. And … my office team [meets] every morning to look at what’s happening for the day. We have key meetings around the numbers and the epidemiology and particularly the days ... we do statements... And then there’s always issues. There’s just been one thing after another, whether it’s businesses and mink farms and poultry producers ... just every sort of thing that comes up. And of course, making sure that we have the planning in our health care system and all of the different pieces. So there are an awful lot of pieces in here. And I have to say, you know, I’m the voice and the face of a very strong team of public health leaders, of hospital leaders and Dr. Stephen Brown, who’s the deputy minister of health, you know, he’s my partner in crime on this. And it’s just a brilliant mind. So, we meet, of course, we talk all the time. And there’s lots of people that are on my little text group.

You’ve been very clear about the independence of your office and how that’s important. So is the direction then into the deputy more than, say, the minister around health issues?

Henry: The deputy leads the operation side and we have a joint relationship leading the response team in the province. But it is very closely connected to the minister [Adrian] Dix and the premier’s office. So, absolutely, we … talk daily; I provide advice. We have a lot of discussions about what are the best things to do. I ask for advice routinely from different ministries, not just the Ministry of Health and the minister of health, but it’s a very important relationship. While some parts of this are certainly independent, we recognize that all of government has a very important role in getting us through this. And there’s very much that’s interconnected.

Knowing what you know, now, is there anything you would have done differently?

Henry: You know, it’s so hard to know. I expected we’d have a second wave, I was hopeful that we would be able to keep that balance of most things being open. But it became very clear in sort of middle of October that this virus was spreading a lot more easily in the fall. There’s a seasonality to it, which is not unexpected. But you know, I probably could have messaged that a little better, because I think it took others by surprise when we started to say no, you can’t do this anymore. And change and nuance are something that causes anxiety in people. Globally, if I look back, I think we missed an opportunity to support China in controlling this at the source. And we probably didn’t pay enough attention to how rapidly it could spread. You know, I’m really distressed by some of the nationalism that this pandemic has exposed, particularly if I look to our neighbours to the south. And the big regret [is] that we couldn’t have been more co-ordinated as a global community to protect people.

As you see it today, Dr. Henry, what do you think are the stages ahead in the next, say, 12 months, as best as you or anyone can predict?

Henry: Well, I do really believe that vaccines will change things for us. And you know, I used an analogy not that long ago that we’re in a triathlon or an Ironman, and I think we’re finishing the bike and vaccine means we’re starting to get into the run, the marathon part of it. But we don’t yet know if it’s a 42.2 [kilometre run], or an ultra [marathon]. So there’s a lot of pacing that we need to do. And we need to keep up the support that we have for each other. But there is a light and it’s getting brighter, and vaccines will make a difference for that. It’s going to be stretched out over the next few months. You know, we talk [in marathons] about getting tired in the last couple of kilometres, and that’s when we get injured. Now we need to pay attention to all of those things that have been keeping us safe, stopping transmission. Keeping close to our family only, especially through this holiday period, is going to be really important, that we keep our transmission down. We don’t want to lose people now when we’re so close to having a vaccine to protect our elders, to having a vaccine that then will interrupt transmission between all of us in the community. So I see the next three months focusing on protecting those most at risk, and our health care system, and then more broadly having a vaccine that’s going to stop this pandemic. And I’m optimistic, hopeful by the summer and that certainly by next fall, that we will be in that place when we can hug each other again and have parties. But we’ll still have to wash our hands.

Let’s say vaccine is available to everyone who wants it in 12 months’ time. How do you envision life being different for British Columbians compared with where we are right now?

Henry: You know, I think the vaccine that we have, we have it in [sufficient] numbers. Once we get to what we call herd immunity, or I prefer to call it community immunity, enough people immunized, that we will stop this virus. My experience with pandemics in the past is once you get to that critical level, the virus can’t find new people to infect. So we protect those who are most at risk. We know [that] age is the single most important risk factor for having severe illness or dying from the virus. So starting with those people, you know, I think we will get back to our usual connections. We will remember how to hug, remember how to shake hands or have meetings together, coming together again. It’s going to be strange at first. If you watch movies, and you think, oh my god, they’re touching each other. That’s maybe just me. But you know, we won’t need to wear masks when we’re out in public. But we will still need to be careful because this has exposed to us a number of things that we don’t take enough precautions around, spreading our germs in different places. And we know that these things help. We haven’t seen influenza this year at all because people are taking protective measures. But we’ve also seen that this virus has exposed inequities in our society and our community. And that’s what we need to start focusing on. It is differentially affecting racialized communities, women who are in business who are now at home, not able to get back into the workforce. So we need to address that. And we absolutely need to address young people. This has been so hard on young people. I’m thinking about young people in my life who graduated from high school [and] didn’t have graduation ceremonies. First-year university is remote. This is a time when young people are making those connections, finding life partners, finding networks. So we have to pay attention, I believe, next summer when we get to that point, to providing those opportunities that young people have missed because that is going to be so important for our economy, for our society.

Are we ready for the next time?

Henry: One of the things that I’ve learned in my experience with crises, whether it’s a pandemic or a natural disaster, is that there’s always that period of chaos when something new happens. We’ve learned a lot through this. We’ve learned a lot about how dependent or interdependent we are on international supply chains. All of these things, I think, we will learn from in ways that we learned in 2003. But some of those things we seemed to lose over time. We developed a sense of complacency around infectious diseases. So I hope that it will last. I hope that it will last long enough that things will take root and that we can establish those protective measures in our communities that will become routine, will become how we care for each other in the future. I’ll just sign off with my usual: It’s so important, now more than ever, to continue to be kind to each other and to stay calm through this last phase of our storm, hopefully, and we’ll all be safe. •