A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Health Canada has approved four vaccines to be administered to Canadians. However, continued public health measures, new emerging coronavirus variants and record case numbers in the second wave have some health experts warning that life won’t return to normal anytime soon.
But Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry is hopeful that people in British Columbia could be living in a “post-pandemic world” by the summer.
The province’s top doctor says she is “optimistic” that the recent approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine and the first one-shot immunization from Johnson & Johnson will allow the government to revise its vaccination timeline and have every eligible B.C. resident vaccinated sooner than previously thought.
Henry spoke to CTV’s Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme from Victoria on Friday to discuss where Canada stands now in the fight against COVID-19, as well as her upcoming book, “Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe: Four Weeks that Shaped a Pandemic,” detailing the first four weeks of the pandemic in B.C.
Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity:
Lisa LaFlamme: I don’t know how you managed to write a book with your nonstop schedule, but it’s a very interesting read. Why now though, before the pandemic is over, before there is a conclusion?
Dr. Bonnie Henry: Oh, that’s a very good question. This book was actually written during the one week, the five days I had off in early August, and my sister was back out here with us and with me and she had put all this structure together and had this idea and she says she talked to me about it, but I don’t remember.
So she came out and basically sat me down and said, ‘OK these are the bits you need to write’, and it really was, in many ways, for me it was cathartic. It was putting some of the thoughts and feelings that we were going through that very challenging time a year ago now.
So we finished it in early August and it’s being released on the anniversary, but I don’t think any of us really knew that we’d be in the place that we are right now so it was one of those — it was just really about that really strange and challenging and difficult period of time that we all went through a year ago now.
LaFlamme: You’ve suggested we could still save the summer. Is it risky to raise people’s hopes after so many setbacks on the vaccine front?
Henry: I think we need hope. We need to know that there’s an end in sight and one of the things that we’ve been saying is this is like a triathlon and we’re in the marathon, but we don’t know where the finish line is or whether it’s an ultra-marathon or a regular 42.2 and those last miles are the hardest, so it is when we need that. We need to know that there’s an end in sight and there’s things that we can do that are going to get us there and I actually believe, from what we have learned about this virus and this year, we’ve seen that there’s a seasonality to it, we’ve seen that the vaccines — and this is the incredible thing that within a year we have now four safe and effective vaccines in Canada — and the thing that really has made it in my mind a possibility that we’re going to get there is the data that has shown how effective the vaccine is at protecting older people.
For those people who haven’t been in the vaccine world for a long time, that is something that is almost miraculous and I don’t use that word lightly. To be able to protect the individuals who are older, is something that makes our ability to get to that place where we can have those important connections together again a very real reality after just one dose of this vaccine.
LaFlamme: And I think everybody is encouraged by that. At the same time this big question — is a third wave inevitable?
Henry: Here in B.C. we’ve been seeing a steady increase in the last two weeks and we’re back to, in some ways, very much where we were at this point last year; relying on the important contact case management and contact tracing that public health does to try and stop those transmissions before they take off widely.
LaFlamme: When you reflect back it’s a little disconcerting to hear you say we’re right back where we were a year ago when you’re seeing numbers rise, when you think of the first wave and those earliest days, given the vast experience you’ve had with SARS and Ebola. Were you out there waving a red flag that there was danger ahead and people were reluctant to believe you or were you also blindsided at just how severe this coronavirus would actually become?
Henry: I was very, very concerned and worried and anxious, much more so than many of my colleagues in public health and in the health system because many of them had not been through this sort of thing, and our last pandemic of influenza, we managed fairly well. So there wasn’t the thought that quarantine was something that we would actually do, closing borders was something we would actually do, closing schools, closing workplaces — these measures that we had talked about in some sense and I have spent a lot of time looking into… There was a sense of disbelief that we would actually have to use them.
LaFlamme: What about accountability in this country for all the preparedness manuals that were clearly sitting on shelves somewhere? It felt for a lot of Canadians we were woefully unprepared — mixed messages, B.C. doing one thing, Alberta doing another, this patchwork across the country and I know that is the reality of a provincial-based health-care system, but for the collective good would you have preferred a more centralized response from the beginning?
Henry: I’ve been thinking a lot of about it for many years and I chair our Canadian Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Planning Task Force that actually had the plan that we used as a basis for this response. And yes, I do wish that we had had a much stronger co-ordinated federal, provincial response. Some of the things that we need to really move and change are having a national information system that allows us to rapidly share information on these critical communicable diseases with us across the country and with the federal government. We don’t have that. We needed that after SARS, we knew that, we spent years building something and then some provinces backed out, the federal government decided they weren’t going to use it and once again we’re here with a patchwork system.
There are so many things that could have been easier had we followed the advice that we’d had, and it is very challenging in times of non pandemics to spend the critical money that’s needed to develop information systems to have a stockpile. One of the things that I’ve been advocating for, as have many of my public health colleagues for many, many years is an onshore vaccination production capacity in Canada, but those things are hard to put forward when you have such urgent issues in our health system on a day-to-day basis. And of course, the tragedy of the reality of how we have neglected our long-term care homes across the country, that is something that we need to change.
LaFlamme: That is the true tragic legacy of this pandemic so far. Do you see that as a public health failure or where’s that responsibility?
Henry: I see it as a failure of multiple different levels. We have commoditized in some ways, we’ve got for-profit, we’ve got not-for-profit, we’ve got religious, but we have to look back on the history of long-term care. It really started as religious orders supporting older members as they aged and so it has been — it has grown up piecemeal. And then the way we’ve treated it as sort of partly in the health-care system and partly not has created a lot of barriers.
We had to take some drastic action very early on because normally, we wouldn’t be providing personal protective equipment and support to private care homes, but early on here in B.C. we said we have to do that because if those people get sick, it’s going to transmit into the community. So we needed to do things like that and overcoming that inertia to get those things done, but it was not easy.
Primary carers who work in our long-term care homes have been mistreated just to be frank for many, many years — underpaid, undervalued, many of them are people who are from racialized communities and that is something that we need to collectively address and change.
LaFlamme: And you were one of the first people in this country to actually be able to put a name and a face to the first Canadian victim of COVID-19. We still don’t know who patient zero is, but how did that experience shape your message so early on and in communicating hard information to Canadians on a daily basis?
Henry: It is really hard, and the backstory of it from the SARS outbreak in Toronto where …I got to know every single one of the families who had people who died in that outbreak. It really became an integral part of my approach to the many different outbreaks that we’ve been involved in; the importance of protecting people’s personal information and making sure that they can’t be linked and found by people who are trying to… It’s challenging, because everybody wants the story and wants to know all the details for families often need privacy, they need time to grieve, to understand what’s happening, and sadly with this virus as we have seen with many other communicable diseases, people can be mistreated, and treated badly.
Even now, we see instances of racism against community members who are COVID positive through no fault of their own, and it started very early on with anti-Asian sentiment that we’re still see. But the importance of getting people the information they needed to take the actions that we knew would protect each other without violating the intense personal privacy that people needed — very difficult balance and I know everybody wants more and more information, but it’s what you need to know as opposed to what people want to know. Finding that balance can be a very difficult challenge sometimes.
LaFlamme: I’m sure personally it was a great challenge too I mean, here you are presenting this message, but you’re also the target. There was a lot of love in the beginning for you, but we all saw that turn. What was that experience like for you and how do you sort of compartmentalize the trolls and the cruelty that is landing on your doorstep?
Henry: I was kind of prepared for that and I said it from the very beginning, I am the face and the voice unwittingly of a really strong, important team and they support me, I support them. That’s one of the things that gets you through the good times and the bad times my fellow chief medical officers of health from across the country, but also my team here in B.C. So that is really important for me.
I knew that over time the longer things go on the more challenging it becomes, the more likely people are to lash out and we know from human behaviour that in a time of crises and anxiety and particularly uncertainty and, I’ve come to learn, nuance creates this feeling of uncertainty that makes some people take it out with acting out and becoming angry. It’s hard, it’s really hard, but I try and balance that, and I can say that I am buoyed every day by positive messages that I get from people all the time from my neighbours, my mother of course…
LaFlamme: There’s so much confusion for Canadians on the role of [vaccine] manufacturers, laid out guidelines, 21 to 28 days between doses. Canadians are suddenly told no, the two doses will have a four month gap because an advisory committee has decided it’s safe. I know you’re a member of that, but do you understand or do you follow the fact that this is what is so confusing and perhaps leading to mistrust in public health in this country?
Henry: Yeah, I understand absolutely that people hear the different messages, but I think what we all need to recognize is that we are learning as we go. We learn more about the virus, we learn how it was transmitted, we learned that in certain conditions indoors, with poor ventilation with lots of people it spread more easily and maybe by aerosols, we learned the importance of masks in certain situations, these are all things that we learn. We get data, it’s a scientific way. You get data, you get more data, you get real-world data, you understand more, and you make changes depending on what you’re learning as you go. Same with these vaccines.
We have to remember that last summer, there was about 150 candidates for vaccines that were in the initial phases of trials. We didn’t know which ones of those were going to work or not. These amazing ones that we have, the Pfizer-BioNTech and the Moderna vaccines, messenger RNA vaccines, brand new vaccine platform, nobody in the world has ever made a vaccine with these before, though there have been little bits of research that have gone back for decades saying that these might be a good idea and people are trying to find a new rabies vaccine, for example. So yeah, the companies wanted and needed to minimize the interval between doses, they needed to figure out if you needed one or two or more, and they needed to minimize the interval between doses so that they could get see if the vaccines worked and we’re safe as rapidly as possible. And that happened, and it happened even before we expected it because we had that surge of cases so the irony is you need more people to get sick to understand that the vaccines are actually protecting people. That is part of how the vaccines were developed and that’s what the manufacturer puts their information into the regulators like Health Canada, and the decision that Health Canada has to make is, does this vaccine work and is it safe? And with the protocols that were used in these clinical trials — so those are very rigid protocols, people are swabbed on a specific date, they’re get blood tests at a specific date, they get vaccines within a specific very narrow timeframe — those are the clinical protocols that help us understand does it work and is it safe.
Once we start using them in the real world, we get what we call effectiveness data. So that’s efficacy, that’s the rigid trials. And then once we get them in the real world we start to understand, well who do they work better for, and there wasn’t so many people who were over 65 in this study so we better watch people who are getting it who are over 65 and see if it is what the studies show. And we’ve learned in real life that — and these are studies too, this is scientific method, it’s just a different type of study … So we’re getting great information about how these work in the real world and that’s what drives our decisions now. So the clinical trials are the basis to figure out if they worked, and then we use the real world data to develop where do they work best and how do we make the best use of the vaccines we have and that’s why we made the decision that not only is it good to extend, it is safe to extend the dose interval to four months, but it’s maybe better for people in the long run and that is from vaccine science, from immunology. We know it takes time for our immune system to build up, and for some of these vaccines it may turn out that a single dose is all we need. We don’t know that yet because we haven’t done those, we haven’t followed long enough, but it is likely that we’re going to change again as we get more information. We may need maybe six months, that’s the optimal time to get a second dose, that’s going to help us get through the next two years of COVID circulation with protecting people so those are things that we’re going to learn as we go. So that’s the way science works in the real world, that we take the studies and then we see how it works in reality.
LaFlamme: Well we are all experiencing a harsh dose of the real world over this past year and Dr. Bonnie Henry we thank you so much for your time and valued insight over this year and, again, congratulations on the book.
Henry: Thank you so much.
Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada and around the world on Monday – CBC.ca
Hospitals across much of Ontario will start ramping down elective surgeries and non-urgent procedures Monday to ensure they have the capacity to treat more COVID-19 patients. Health Minister Christine Elliott said Friday that could increase intensive-care unit capacity in Ontario by up to 1,000 patient beds.
The province reported on Sunday that there were 1,513 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 605 people in intensive care “due to COVID-related illness.”
Ontario also said that there were 4,456 new COVID-19 cases in the province on Sunday, marking a new single-day high for new infections.
Hospitals in northern Ontario are exempt from cancelling non-urgent procedures, but a memo from Ontario Health on Thursday night said they should prepare to ramp down quickly in the near future.
The memo also asked hospitals to identify staff who may be redeployed to other sites if necessary.
Meanwhile, more than 700 pharmacies are joining Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout as the province races to slow the spread of the virus. Government officials say the move will rapidly expand availability of the AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged 55 and over this week.
-From The Canadian Press, last updated at 7 a.m. ET
What’s happening elsewhere in Canada
WATCH | Many educators still waiting for access to COVID-19 vaccine:
As of early Monday morning, Canada had reported 1,060,163 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 73,446 considered active. A CBC News tally of deaths stood at 23,315.
Across Atlantic Canada, health officials reported 15 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, including:
- 9 new cases in the Edmundston area of New Brunswick, which entered a lockdown on Sunday.
- 5 new cases in Nova Scotia, which brought the number of active cases in the province to 40.
- 1 new case in Newfoundland and Labrador, putting the number of active cases in the province at 10.
Prince Edward Island, which did not report any new cases on Sunday, is as of Monday allowing people aged 55 and up to get the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine at 12 pharmacies on the island.
In Central Canada, Quebec health officials on Sunday reported 1,535 new cases and five new deaths. Hospitalizations in the province, as reported on a provincial dashboard, stood at 608, with 139 people in intensive care. The province, which has moved up its curfew in Montreal and Laval, on Sunday night saw hundreds of protesters gather in Old Montreal.
Health officials in Alberta, meanwhile, reported 1,183 new cases of COVID-19 and one additional death. The province’s chief medical health officer said 50.5 per cent of the active cases in the province are variants of concern.
In British Columbia, health officials have decided that all adults who live or work in Whistler are eligible as of Monday for a COVID-19 vaccine as the region struggles with increasing cases.
Across the North, there were no new cases of COVID-19 reported on Sunday in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories or Yukon.
-From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 7:05 a.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Monday morning, more than 136.1 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to a tracking site run by Johns Hopkins University in the United States. The reported global death toll stood at more than 2.9 million.
In Europe, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged people to “behave responsibly” as shops, gyms, hairdressers, restaurant patios and beer gardens reopen after months of lockdown. Monday sees the easing of restrictions that have been in place in England since early January to suppress a surge in coronavirus infections linked to a more transmissible new variant of the virus.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are following their own, broadly similar plans to ease lockdown. Britain has had Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, with more than 127,000 confirmed deaths.
Meanwhile, in France, more than 10 million people have received a first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine, Prime Minister Jean Castex said.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the hard-hit Philippine capital and four nearby provinces have been placed under a lighter coronavirus lockdown to avoid further damage to an already battered economy despite a continuing surge in infections and deaths. The Philippines has long been a Southeast Asian coronavirus hot spot, with about 865,000 confirmed infections and nearly 15,000 deaths.
“Our emerging strategy is to increase our bed capacities instead of closing the economy,” said presidential spokesperson Harry Roque who spoke in a televised news briefing from a Manila hospital after contracting COVID-19 like many cabinet members.
Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees flocked to take a holy bath in India’s Ganges river, even as the nation racked up the world’s highest tally of new daily coronavirus infections.
In the Middle East, Iran imposed a 10-day lockdown across most of the country on Saturday.
In the Americas, the United States had administered 187,047,131 doses of COVID-19 vaccines and distributed 237,796,105 doses as of Sunday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Venezuela has secured the funds to fully pay for coronavirus vaccines via the COVAX system, President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday, a day after a surprise announcement that the country had paid more than half the amount due.
In Africa, Tunisia approved Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and will soon receive 1.5 million doses of the vaccine under an African Union plan.
-From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 7:10 a.m. ET
Have questions about this story? We’re answering as many as we can in the comments.
Myanmar military sentences 19 to death, says anti-coup protests dwindling
(Reuters) – Nineteen people have been sentenced to death in Myanmar for killing an associate of an army captain, the military owned Myawaddy TV station said on Friday, the first such sentences announced in public since a Feb. 1 coup and crackdown on protesters.
The report said the killing took place on March 27 in the North Okkalapa district of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city. Martial law has been declared in the district, allowing courts martial to pronounce sentences.
The military rulers who overthrew an elected government said on Friday that a protest campaign against its rule was dwindling because people wanted peace, and that it would hold elections within two years, the first timeframe it has given for a return to democracy.
Troops fired rifle grenades at anti-coup protesters on Friday in the town of Bago, near Yangon, witnesses and news reports said. At least 10 people were killed and their bodies piled up inside a pagoda, they said.
Myanmar Now news and Mawkun, an online news magazine, said at least 20 people were killed and many wounded. It was not possible to get a precise toll because troops had cordoned off the area near the pagoda, they said.
Junta spokesman Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun told a news conference in the capital, Naypyitaw, that the country was returning to normal and government ministries and banks would resume full operations soon.
More than 600 people have been killed by security forces cracking down on protests against the coup, according to an activist group. The country has ground to a standstill because of the protests and widespread strikes against military rule.
“The reason of reducing protests is due to cooperation of people who want peace, which we value,” Zaw Min Tun said. “We request people to cooperate with security forces and help them.”
He said the military had recorded 248 deaths and he denied that automatic weapons had been used. Sixteen policemen had also been killed, he said.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) activist group has said 614 people, including 48 children, had been killed by security forces since the coup, as of Thursday evening. More than 2,800 were in detention, it said.
“We are humbled by their courage and dignity,” a group of 18 ambassadors in Myanmar said of the protesters in a joint statement.
“We stand together to support the hopes and aspirations of all those who believe in a free, just, peaceful and democratic Myanmar. Violence has to stop, all political detainees must be released and democracy must be restored.”
The statement was signed by the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, the EU, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Switzerland and several other European nations.
“The suggestions from neighbouring countries and big countries and powerful people in politics, we respect them,” Zaw Min Tun said. He also accused members of deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy of arson and said the protest campaign was being financed by foreign money, but gave no details.
Suu Kyi and many of her party colleagues have been in custody since the coup.
Zaw Min Tun said reports that some members of the international community did not recognise the military government were “fake news”.
“We are cooperating with foreign countries and working together with neighbouring countries,” the spokesman said.
Ousted Myanmar lawmakers urged the United Nations Security Council on Friday to take action against the military.
“Our people are ready to pay any cost to get back their rights and freedom,” said Zin Mar Aung, who has been appointed acting foreign minister for a group of ousted lawmakers. She urged Council members to apply both direct and indirect pressure on the junta.
“Myanmar stands at the brink of state failure, of state collapse,” Richard Horsey, a senior adviser on Myanmar with the International Crisis Group, told the informal U.N. meeting, the first public discussion of Myanmar by council members.
The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, had wanted to visit the country but said she has been rebuffed by the generals.
She said on Friday she had arrived in Bangkok, the capital of neighbouring Thailand.
“I regret that Tatmadaw answered me yesterday that they are not ready to receive me,” Schraner Burgener said on Twitter, referring to the Myanmar military. “I am ready for dialogue. Violence never leads to peaceful sustainable solutions.”
(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Grant McCool; Editing by Nick Macfie and Daniel Wallis)
Australia abandons COVID-19 vaccination targets after new advice on AstraZeneca shots
By Paulina Duran
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia has abandoned a goal to vaccinate nearly all of its 26 million population by the end of 2021 following advice that people under the age of 50 take Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine rather than AstraZeneca’s shot.
Australia, which had banked on the AstraZeneca vaccine for the majority of its shots, had no plans to set any new targets for completing its vaccination programme, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a Facebook post on Sunday afternoon.
“While we would like to see these doses completed before the end of the year, it is not possible to set such targets given the many uncertainties involved,” Morrison said.
Authorities in Canberra changed their recommendation on Pfizer shots for under-50s on Thursday, after European regulators reiterated the possibility of links between the AstraZeneca shot and reports of rare cases of blood clots.
Australia, which raced to double its order of the Pfizer vaccine last week, had originally planned to have its entire population vaccinated by the end of October.
Australia’s hardline response to the virus largely stopped community transmissions but the vaccination rollout has become a hot political topic – and a source of friction between Morrison and state and territory leaders – after the country vaccinated only a fraction of its four million target by the end of March.
About 1.16 million COVID-19 doses have now been administered, Morrison added, noting the speed of Australia’s vaccination programme was in line with other peer nations, including Germany and France, and ahead of Canada and Japan.
Australia began vaccinations much later than some other nations, partly because of its low number of infections, which stand at just under 29,400, with 909 deaths, since the pandemic began.
(GRAPHIC – Global COVID tracker: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/)
(Reporting by Paulina Duran; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)
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