Interior Health’s top doctor says it’s time for people in the region to heed the advice of public health authorities as cases of COVID-19 continue to swell in the region.
On Wednesday, Dec. 2, Interior Health (IH) held its first media Q-and-A since the pandemic began, in which IH chief medical health officer Dr. Albert de Villiers addressed a number of uncertainties among the media and the public.
While de Villiers offered hints (or caveats) towards what restrictions could look like following an update from the provincial health officer (PHO) on Dec. 7, his prevailing message was in many ways an echo of the PHO’s message, now underlined for emphasis.
“People actually need to start listening, not only hearing, and actually start acting on what we’ve been saying for quite a while now,” said de Villiers, who became the region’s chief MHO in August.
Cases of the novel coronavirus have been steadily climbing in the region since October; though the region’s COVID-19 death toll remains at three, there have been 963 new cases since Nov. 12, one week before the current restrictions were announced.
De Villiers also spoke to the COVID-19 cluster in Revelstoke, which grew to 46 cases as of Dec. 1, and linked the community cluster to multiple events — this after Premier John Horgan said non-essential travel to the popular ski community was primarily to blame.
There has been noticeably more friction between some residents and the public health authorities since those restrictions were put in place. An anti-mask protester’s alleged threat to an Orchard Park Mall staff member in Kelowna is one of several examples in the region over the past week and a half.
On Wednesday, de Villiers addressed several common misconceptions circling the virus itself and the restrictions in place to control it.
For those who question why public health guidance changes month to month, de Villiers reminded that the virus is new and scientific understandings of its characteristics changes over time.
“To be flippant, I would hope our advice is a little bit different now than it used to be in March because we are learning so much,” he said, adding at this time last year when the COVID-19 was first taking shape in China, nothing was known about the virus — and there is much that remains unknown.
For those who argue a mask mandate is a violation of individual rights, de Villiers offered an analogy.
“There are lots of other things that society expects me to do; I need to wear a seat belt, it’s not an option. I need to wear pants when I’m in public, it’s not an option. It’s true, it’s my body, but I’ve still got some responsibility to decide and to make sure we can keep everybody safe and healthy.”
De Villiers said he and the province’s chief MHOs meet with Dr. Bonnie Henry three times a week to stay ahead of the virus based on the latest scientific findings.
“It’s not somebody’s opinion or some political agenda, it’s actually science-based and that’s the recommendations we make,” he said.
Some residents have drawn comparisons between COVID-19 and influenza in questioning the need for the current restrictions, but de Villiers said case data for each show “we’re still worse off with COVID,” adding vaccines and a built-up immunity to the flu have made it a tolerable risk over time.
“We’re not there yet with COVID-19,” he said.
“We need to make sure we stay vigilant and we keep it out of our long-term care centres. We make sure we keep people out of hospital so that our health care system doesn’t collapse.”
There is a concern among public health officials that COVID-19 fatigue will or has already set in, de Villiers said, but recent information on the vaccine front has him looking ahead with cautious optimism, as long as people follow the guidance being delivered.
“With a vaccine coming up, if we actually do what we’re supposed to be doing now I think we should be out of this by definitely next year this time, but hopefully by the spring or the summer it will be way better, and we’ll be relaxed and be able to get back to some of our usual activities,” he said.