Vaughn Palmer: ‘Never-ending’ uncertainty replaces premature COVID-19 victory laps in B.C.

© Provided by Vancouver Sun The provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.

VICTORIA — When the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine arrived in B.C. last December, there was an outpouring of optimism.

Premier John Horgan, fresh from winning a snap election during the second wave of the pandemic, professed to see the finish line in sight.

“We don’t anticipate that the COVID pandemic will be with us come the summer of 2021,” he told reporters last Dec. 15, the day public health officials began administering the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

“It’s part confidence and part optimism, ” explained Horgan, when asked the basis for his prediction. “It’s based on briefings from officials who spent their lifetime working on these issues.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry also speculated about “a finish line that is in sight.”

Looking ahead to this year, the provincial health officer predicted increased immunization would lead to a “dramatic decrease” in the epidemiological curve.

“We’re going to have a very different and much more social summer,” she told reporters. “Next fall we’ll get back to some semblance of our normal ways of interacting with each other and the pandemic, I hope, will be on its last legs.”

Instead, the first half of 2021 was given over to the third wave of the pandemic. By summer, the fourth wave took over and is still with us.

Looking back at last year’s prevailing mood of optimism, one finds a few miscalculations.

One was the estimation of what it would take to cross the threshold “herd” – or as Henry preferred “community” — immunity.

“Once we start having enough vaccine in the community to immunize people on a wide scale, then the virus has a very hard time finding a new person to infect that isn’t already protected,” Henry told reporters last December. “Once we reach that place, transmission goes down very rapidly.”

At the time, she estimated the threshold for herd immunity “at about 60 to 70 per cent of the population — that’s what the modelling tells us.”

B.C. has since crossed both thresholds. But today some experts say the threshold is 80 per cent of the total population. Some doubt it can ever be achieved.

A year ago there was comparatively little discussion about the possible impact of COVID-19 variants.

“This virus does mutate, but very slowly,” Henry acknowledged, adding that vaccines had so far proven effective against the then-prevailing variants.

At the time, the variant later dubbed Alpha had already been detected in the UK. It soon would be found here, becoming a major force in the third wave.

Still to come was the Delta variant, which proved to be significantly more transmissible than earlier variants of COVID-19.

Delta drove the fourth wave of the pandemic. It remains the overwhelming cause of today’s cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the new Omicron variant notwithstanding.

Returning to Henry’s briefing of a year ago, she was asked about B.C.’s belated response to the second wave.

It was already building when the premier called the snap election on Sept. 21. But Henry took no major steps to curb the second wave until after the election was over.

By the time vaccine rollout began on Dec. 15, B.C.’s case count had quintupled (to 43,000 from 8,200 on Sept. 21) and deaths had tripled (to 668 from 227).

“Do you regret not taking these steps and enhancing these restrictions a little bit earlier?” asked a reporter.

“I still don’t feel that we’re at a place where we can start second guessing what we did when we did,” said Henry. “We followed the plan that we had put in place. And we took action as soon as we started to see rapid increase. We have seen a flattening. But we are also learning about this virus, and we’re not alone.”

Only later did Henry admit that she wished she’d brought in stronger measures as the second wave surged in the fall of 2020.

“In retrospect, I probably should have listened to my Spidey sense,” she told reporter Cindy Harnett of the Victoria Times Colonist in March of this year.

“But you know, I don’t make these decisions in isolation. I make them with my public health colleagues and they were not as concerned.”

It was a rare moment of looking back for the provincial health officer, consumed as she is with managing a major pandemic for going on two years.

Lately, she’s largely avoided making predictions about the likely course of the pandemic going forward.

During this week’s briefing, there was no talk about finish lines in sight or the pandemic being on its last leg.

Instead, she reflected on the shared challenge of living with “ never-ending” uncertainty.

“It is yet another hill in a very, very long journey,” she said.

“If you’re feeling anxious or depressed or hopeless, I encourage you to focus on what is happening now, recognizing that we do know how to get through this. We’ve seen our worst-case scenario and we know what we need to do to prevent it.”

There followed some down to earth advice about seeking out the consoling joys in every day things.

“Remember to do some deep breathing,” the doctor counselled in her best bedside manner. “Listen to music. Meditate. Bake cookies for neighbours or friends.”

Bake cookies?

I find that more reassuring than all the premature victory laps the Horgan government has taken over the past two years.