'It feels like betrayal': Vulnerable families respond to COVID-19 changes as B.C.'s top doctor defends approach

When the provincial health officer told British Columbians she was removing isolation requirements and testing for most of the population and compared managing COVID-19 in similar terms to the flu or common cold, many people were shocked and some instantly alarmed. 

Dr. Bonnie Henry addressed people who are extremely clinically vulnerable, assuring them they would have access to COVID-19 testing and that they should get tested right away if they develop symptoms, so they can access treatment. In fact, she emphasized that the general public “have a responsibility to try and minimize our risk to them by doing the things that help protect us and protect others,” namely getting vaccinated and following public health orders.

For many, however, those statements were overshadowed by Henry’s discussion of the need for balance and the reduced severity of the Omicron variant in comparison to the deadlier Delta strain – particularly at a time the health-care system is struggling to maintain basic levels of care

“It feels like betrayal, like we’re just forgotten and left to the side,” said Laesa Kim, whose kindergartner has multiple serious medical conditions and had open-heart surgery in the fall.

“I’m cautious with my child, but I still want her attending school and socializing and doing the things she should be doing,” said the Langley mother of two. “People still send sick kids to school and think it’s no big deal and then she’s home for three weeks recovering from a cold.”

Jeremy Franta is a terminal cancer patient in Delta. He hasn’t sent his daughters to school yet because most of their friends have had COVID-19 in the past two weeks and he’s terrified of the potential consequences.

“Do we send my kids (to school), and they bring it to me, they kill me? I won't care, but my kids have to live with that,” he said. “I feel the clinically vulnerable have been left behind and nobody cares. We’re left in the wind to fend for ourselves.”

MEDICAL COMMUNITY AND EXPERTS SURPRISED BY TIMING

One of British Columbia’s most respected pandemic analysts pointed out that – while testing is a useful barometer for public health officials and academics to track and assess the virus’s patterns, resistance to vaccines and new characteristics – a test does not change whether someone should or can get medical treatment.

SFU professor Caroline Colijn and her colleagues on the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group also aren’t convinced we’ve seen peak hospitalizations from the Omicron wave, and she emphasized the consequences of starting to reopen society for most but not all.

"I think we should be paying attention to unfair burdens and asking people who may be very at-risk to simply shield," said Colijn. “Impacts on those who can't work from home or those who are at risk of a more severe illness from COVID-19, I think we do have to consider that and consider that as numbers decrease they may also get concentrated in higher-risk groups."

Disability analyst and researcher Gabrielle Peters wants the public to understand these aren’t theoretical issues.

“Our individual ability to mitigate risk varies and is impacted by multiple things like poverty, the type of work you do, the housing you live in and supports you require. B.C. has failed to address any of this,” she said. “There has been an ableist bias to B.C.'s methodology for identifying disabled people's risks and addressing our needs all along. We have done our best to survive in spite of this.”

Past president of Doctors of BC Dr. Matthew Chow said while he expected the transition to endemic management of the virus, he was surprised to see it now.

“I certainly hear from some colleagues who are concerned that we’re moving too quickly,” he said. “But I'll tell you I also hear from some colleagues who say, ‘Let's get on with this, this is such a pervasive infection now, you can assume everyone’s been exposed or will be exposed,’ so there’s no point in further restrictions at this time because they’re not likely to be meaningful.”

Chow pointed out that it’s understandable and acceptable that people feel unsettled by the transition and that it’ll take time to adjust, but he believes the decision wasn’t made lightly.

“I’m glad I’m not in the shoes of public health and that I’m not in Dr. Henry’s shoes, because it’s a tough call as to when to deliver that content,” he said. “It’s become increasingly obvious the approach would have to change unless we wanted a society-wide shutdown.”

PROVINCIAL HEALTH OFFICER INSISTS GOALS REMAIN THE SAME

As she maintained the somewhat contradictory messaging of public health measures like bar closures and mask mandates while also encouraging people to socialize and characterizing COVID-19 management like other respiratory viruses, CTV News asked Henry if her goals remain the same.

She replied that they remain unchanged: To reduce serious illness and death, to preserve the health-care system and to minimize societal disruption.

When asked whether the lack of isolation and testing indicated she had given up on trying to control the virus and switched to endemic mode, she denied that’s the case.

“We are clearly not in a place where it's endemic right now. What we are doing is adjusting to the changes that we've seen from the new variant,” Henry insisted, noting that contact tracing and testing had reduced purpose with the virus spreading faster and with a shorter incubation period, and with fewer people needing hospital care relative to overall cases.

But she also continued to talk about COVID-19 in the long-term; diseases are considered endemic when regularly found in certain areas, but with low and stable hospitalizations. 

“We cannot eliminate all risk, and I think that's something that we need to understand and accept as this virus has changed and has become part of what we will be living with for years to come,” said Henry.

Without a clear plan or specific advice for vulnerable British Columbians, they’re left waiting to see when their situation will be acknowledged or how long they’re expected to seal themselves away while the rest of us get closer to our normal lives.

“So many people like to peg family members with risk factors are just fearful and yes, we are fearful because we’ve seen first-hand what any number of viruses can do to our loved ones,” said Kim. “But we’re also wanting them to live life – I’m not fearful to the extent I want to keep (my kindergartner) in the house for the rest of her life." 

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