By Olivia Visser, Opinions Editor

Everyone wants the pandemic to be over, but we can’t will the virus away. We won’t bring an end to COVID-19 by pretending cases and hospitalizations are low when, in reality, they’re rising again. I believe this is due in part to our government’s mixed messaging about the virus.

Something shifted the first time mask mandates were lifted. You know, when indoor mask regulations were lifted briefly in July 2021 before shortly returning again in August 2021. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly changed after that, but I think a lot of people felt frustrated by being jerked around with false assurances about the state of the pandemic. Some felt they couldn’t trust our government. In a way, they were right.

Globally and nationally, COVID-19 messaging had a confusing start. The World Health Organization (WHO) initially claimed mask use “by healthy individuals could induce a false sense of security.” The statement came even after China, Vietnam, and other countries recommended the use of face masks as a preventive measure. This left many people in the west unsure about the efficacy of mask-wearing.

Fast forward one month, and Dr. Henry was telling the public that masks are “something that we should get used to.” We know that even just wearing a cloth mask can protect against 50–70% of fine respiratory droplets, which was how COVID-19 was primarily thought to spread in early 2020. Our COVID-19 knowledge changes and evolves alongside medical research, but health officials should have exercised more caution before impulsively reassuring the public with rapidly shifting data. These early pieces of information have stayed within the realm of public understanding, with many people tuning out new information. Health officials are supposed to be providing the public with new information, but instead they have only caused confusion and a false sense of security.

It took the WHO over two years to quietly recognize that airborne infection of COVID-19 was possible, despite being served epidemiology reports with proof of this beforehand. This delayed acknowledgement caused an inadequate response to implement measures to combat an airborne threat.

Many have exhaustively discussed masking’s importance since the start of the pandemic. Underlying most arguments is an emphasis on protecting those most vulnerable to serious illness and death from COVID-19: disabled and critically ill people, elderly people, and otherwise immunocompromised people. At the start of the pandemic, a healthy 12-year-old elementary schooler might have minimal symptoms, but they have the potential to spread the illness to those who risk death or complications from infection.

Capital Daily and The Burnaby Beacon conducted a joint investigation into claims made by Dr. Henry about COVID-19 transmission in schools. They found significant disparities between Henry’s public statements and her knowledge about the virus and pandemic conditions. Starting in September 2020, Henry began assuring the public that “the risk of transmission at schools was very low.” Even in April 2021, she maintained her position that “school transmission itself is not a major driver of community transmission.”

While teachers with lived experience expressed concern over her theory, BC did little to curb infection rates in schools. Some fell back on the faulty argument that even if kids do get sick, most of them probably won’t get severely ill, and that’s not to mention the increasing evidence of COVID-19 potentially wreaking havoc on children’s health. Further, COVID-19 often results in mild symptoms for younger age groups. This allows for easy transmission, since many people only test or isolate themselves for COVID-19 if they show significant signs of illness.

Dr. Henry knew this — leaked emails suggest she was aware of the widespread concern over school transmission. According to the investigation, one email she wrote reads: “Could you please give me some of the stats from your school assessments for the media brief today. We need to be able to give some data that supports what we keep saying transmission in schools is low.” Why was she so keen on selling the public a false sense of security? According to The Beacon, Henry based her information off a regularly updated report which “cautioned that the certainty of the evidence was low and that findings could change as more data became available.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Henry co-authored a recent study on COVID-19 transmission in BC, which found that “80% of kids and youth have had COVID-19.” According to The Vancouver Sun, the study also says only 60–70% of adults have been infected by comparison. This information directly contradicts Henry’s frequent claims that transmission rates in schools were low. It supports what teachers and healthcare professionals have been echoing all along: people were, and are, getting sick at high rates.

A publication in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found Canada was ahead of many countries for second vaccination dose rates. However, like many citizens, the government seems to have given up on fighting COVID-19. Only 50% of the Canadian population has received their third vaccination, and officials have backed down on their efforts to promote masks and vaccines. Public health has said little about fourth doses, leaving many confused about official health recommendations.

With mask and vaccine mandates being lifted in BC earlier this March, and all travel restrictions disappearing as of October, some might think the COVID-19 pandemic is finally coming to an end. While I’d like to believe this is true, I can’t help feeling as though we’ve learned nothing this entire time. Wanting the pandemic to be over won’t make it over; this is evident through all the mixed signals given to citizens and the fact that we’re still struggling to keep hospitalizations down. A CTV News article cited The Public Health Agency of Canada, saying hospitals had an average of 4,700 daily hospitalizations from COVID-19 between September 15–October 15. That’s more than twice the number from last year, which was 2,000.

Immunocompromised and at-risk people deserve to participate in society. They shouldn’t need to hide indoors forever to protect their health because we navigated this pandemic so poorly. As 2022 wraps up and we enter another year of uncertainty amid COVID-19, we still must act with at-risk groups in mind. This goes for individuals and our government: you can’t will the virus away.

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