No apology, finger-pointing continues over who 'blew it' as B.C.'s COVID-19 infections soar

The fallout from a press conference announcing sweeping new COVID-19 restrictions for British Columbia has continued throughout the week, as criticism of the province's messaging grows amid a surge in cases. 

On Monday, Premier John Horgan angered many British Columbians across several age groups when he blamed younger adults for the province’s surge in COVID-19 cases. His comments came as positive tests have been climbing steadily for weeks, even though the current share of young adults’ infections is comparable to what it’s been throughout the pandemic.

“The cohort from 20 to 39 are not paying as much attention to these broadcasts and quite frankly, are putting the rest of us in a challenging situation,” Horgan said during Monday’s COVID-19 update.

"Do not blow this for the rest of us, do not blow this for your parents and your neighbours."

The comments instantly prompted a fierce backlash on social media across the political spectrum, including within his own party.

"I think an apology is only right to make amends," said Justin Kulik, a University of British Columbia student who first ran for the New Democratic Party federally as an 18-year-old in 2019 and then again in B.C.'s 2020 provincial election.

“I just couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed and frustrated. It’s the young people who, for over a year now, have been on the front lines of this pandemic working in those essential jobs that can’t be done from home.”

Horgan's comments prompted criticism from observers, ranging from data scientists who posted graphics supporting the consistent infection rates among young adults, to political strategist and communications consultants who gave the premier a failing grade.

“I think the premier largely blew it yesterday in his press conference,” said Navigator Ltd. senior consultant, Alex Shiff. "It’s hard to overstate how much of a misstep that was, from a communications standpoint and a policy standpoint.

"This is a segment of the population that works disproportionally at essential public-facing jobs, that has the least access to vaccinations, most likely to work in a precarious situation where they can’t afford to miss the day off work and a segment of the population that lives in precarious housing with roommates.”

Much of the rise in transmissions were blamed on "young people", but cases have been increasing steeply throughout (except for oldest vaccinated group). Hoping to fine time later today to take a more detailed look at age groups. pic.twitter.com/eB6KMyvVgt

— Jens von Bergmann (@vb_jens) March 30, 2021

Confusion over provincial health officer's statements

Dr. Bonnie Henry was also criticized for her comments during Monday’s update.

Critics said one of the more confusing statements from Henry was around her move "to support mask-wearing for all students down to Grade 4,” which made the policy sound optional. Later in the briefing, she said the province was expanding a mandatory mask mandate brought in for the Surrey School District.

“When there’s this level of confusion it’s negative on the entire system and reflects badly on government,” said B.C. Teachers Federation president, Teri Mooring.

Mooring says she spent much of the day speaking with ministry officials to clarify the policy, but was still awaiting a written confirmation as of Tuesday evening. 

That clarification came by Wednesday morning, when the province published its new guidance, saying masks are indeed required for students in Grade 4 and higher. 

“This is yet another example of the communication problems we’ve been experiencing all along,” Mooring said.

Another remark from Henry that came as a surprise to those who’ve been following the growing infection rates came in the context of explaining why she had waited until now to implement shut-downs for in-person dining, gyms and other restrictions.

“I was very hopeful, even as late as last week that we would be able to get through this next few weeks, keeping where we were,” Henry said.

“It really has been the dramatic increase in the last five to six days that has shown us we're on a trajectory — rather than where we have been which is rumbling along at a rate that was quite high, which worried me because when you have 500 cases a day — the probability of it going up exponentially is much higher.”

But the president and CEO of Vancouver’s Infectious Disease Centre told CTV News Vancouver that case counts in that range were unacceptable three weeks ago, and urged government to ramp up testing and targeted restrictions.

“Over the past several weeks the Fraser Health Authority has been a hotbed for disease transmission and because people move around, it has sustained the epidemic in the Vancouver Coastal area,” said Dr. Brian Conway on Tuesday.

“We have not necessarily been testing enough to identify the transmission networks so I think an earlier intervention where we would have had selective interventions of types that have been done in other provinces that, along with other testing, might have been indicated several weeks ago.”

The premier contributed to the confusion just two weeks ago, when he said B.C. was on “the right track” and “in a good place,” while Henry announced changes for some in-person religious services and visitation for care home residents – even as case numbers and hospitalizations were rising

Premier doubles down on remarks, then softens tone

Tuesday afternoon, hosts on RedFM asked the premier whether he would apologize for his generation-targeting remarks as Kulik had asked.

“I’m not going to do that,” replied Horgan. “I was trying to catch people’s attention. I think I was quite successful if I’m having 19-year-olds asking for apologies, that means they’ve heard what I’ve had to say. I hope they go beyond the wakeup call to assess their personal activities and how they can do better.”

Within a couple hours of the interview, the premier’s Twitter feed included a new thread on the matter that appeared to be crafted with a much more conciliatory tone. Several of his key staffers are in their 30s, though it's unknown who drafted the latest messages posted online.

My #1 concern is protecting people from this aggressive virus and getting through this last mile safely.

I'm trying to catch the attention of the few who refuse to follow the public health restrictions.

To the vast majority of young people doing everything they can: thank you.

— John Horgan (@jjhorgan) March 30, 2021

“To the vast majority of young people doing everything they can: thank you,” reads part of his first tweet. “Reports of more young people getting sicker due to new variants have kept us up at night.”

Shiff believes the premier is the one who “blew it” by missing an opportunity to own up to his government’s handling of the second wave, which has fared as badly or worse compared to other provinces. Active cases and daily infections in B.C. have been among the highest in the country since November. 

“When you’re in a position of leadership, the buck always stops with you,” Shiff said.

“What would’ve been great to see from the government yesterday is to say ‘this is on us, we didn’t go far enough, our messaging hasn’t worked, our policies haven’t worked and now we’re taking responsibility and announcing these changes.’”