B.C. doctors reflect on the first year of the pandemic, and express cautious hope about the road ahead
VANCOUVER -- On Jan. 28, 2020, B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, announced the first case of COVID-19 in the province.
The first patient, a man in his 40s who had travelled to Wuhan, China for work, recovered.
One year later, as of Jan. 28, 2021, 1,184 British Columbians have died.
Nearly 60,000 have survived.
On this anniversary, a milestone that no one wanted, CTV News asked three doctors working on the front lines of the pandemic to reflect on the year past, and to share their hopes for the year head.
Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
How would describe the events of the past year?
Dr. Melissa Lem, family physician and UBC clinical associate professor: Initially, scary for sure. The great unknown.
Dr. Brian Conway, medical director, Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre: Generational. It has changed our daily lives, and it will change them for months and years to come.
Dr. Rhonda Low, family physician and UBC clinical associate professor: It was really one of the longest years of my life.
What do you see as our biggest success of the last 12 months?
Conway: I think the leadership of Dr. Bonnie Henry. I think she has been a calming influence. She has been factual. She has engaged most people. This, as much as anything else, has helped our curve be a little flatter.
Low: How the community could actually pull together. The resilience of the population to still want to pull together and to be part of the solution. Plus, science works. It helped us learn how the virus behaved and respond. I’m delighted in many ways that we do have vaccine one year in.
Lem: The fact that a lot of health-care workers wanted to run and hide, but we didn’t. We were all terrified, but we all buckled down, we put our heads down, and did our job. Also, I think the overall balance in B.C. that we’ve struck between keeping the economy going and following the science is a success.
What about our biggest shortfall?
Lem: PPE early on. I think we really got divided into these groups of haves and have-nots. I also think we could have put into place mandatory mask mandates sooner. We sort of waited until cases started to rise and there was good science for doing so. Plus, more specific reporting about where COVID-19 is and who’s affected by it. On top of that, the whole chain of not notifying people quickly enough during outbreaks is an issue.
Conway: I continue to be perplexed that we are not doing more testing. Why aren’t we embracing testing? Why we aren’t embracing the national COVID-19 app? I haven’t heard a good answer to that recently. That’s a little bit of a mystery to me.
Low: The inability to procure and to obtain and to stockpile enough vaccine. Whatever plan was put together by the federal government has not been sufficient on a large scale.
What do we need more of right now that we don’t have, beyond more vaccine?
Lem: We have to consider the health of our rural and Indigenous populations a bit more. We also have to support people who work on the front lines more, for example, more paid sick days. I also think it’s really important that we keep our provincial parks and green spaces open. I remember early on, the pandemic shut everything down and it left people stressed with no place to go.
Low: I look outside and I see folks trying their hardest. My patients are trying their hardest. They can’t be doing any more. The most important thing is not to let your guard down. Don’t get complacent.
Conway: If we think of having kept the restaurants open, having the gyms open, having Whistler open. There have been few, if any, outbreaks because the rules are being followed. What I would do is a make a list, and it would be very long, of all the things we’re allowed to do and that have not been associated with outbreaks. Perhaps view it that way rather than asking people to make another sacrifice. There’s a lot of things you can do while still following the rules.
What’s our biggest challenge for the year to come?
Low: We need to help people understand that COVID-19 vaccine, based on what we know, is safe. Please don’t be afraid. I want to encourage everyone to be vaccinated so we can all get back to our normal lives.
Conway: COVID-19 fatigue. The public health measures will need to be in place for the rest of this calendar year for sure.
Lem: Efficient and smart rollout of vaccines. We know we have these plans in place in our province, but we don’t know how they’re going to be executed. I think in order to build trust among the public, in order to get as many vaccines into arms as possible, that needs to be solid.
Where do you think B.C. will be in January 2022?
Low: The pandemic has changed how we’re delivering health-care. We do more virtual visits, and I think that change is permanent. I think that’s a good thing. It’s also helped us place more value on the things we’ve temporarily lost. Social get-togethers. Friends. It’s helped us re-evaluate our lives. When it comes to 2022, I feel hopeful.
Lem: I don’t know that we’ll be fully back into normal life by that point. I think vaccination is the key. I’m hopeful that we’ll get there in a year. Of course, there’s a possibility of variants and resistance to vaccines, but I think our technology is good enough that we can quickly adapt to that. I feel hopeful.
Conway: I think we will be in a new normal. We won’t live life two meters away from each other, but the handshake is probably going the way of the dodo bird. I’m cautiously optimistic. We’re in this together. It’s generational. It won't happen for another 100 years.