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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry puts on her protective mask during a news conference at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Aug. 23.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbians should brace for a tough fall and winter from the pandemic and not expect a return to anything resembling normal until some time next year, the Provincial Health Officer says.

Bonnie Henry also says much-discussed “herd immunity” won’t be achieved now until well over 90 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, because of the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, and she said it’s likely the disease will be making people extremely sick for the next couple of years.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Globe and Mail, Dr. Henry also said children between the ages of six and 12 in B.C. could be getting inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine by the third week of October if the company succeeds in getting the necessary approvals from Health Canada. And she stood by decisions she has made throughout the pandemic on indoor masking, vaccine passports and mandatory vaccines in settings such as university and long-term care homes.

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“All along, I’ve tried to adhere to key principles that underlie what we are doing,” Dr. Henry said. “And one of those is trying to manage this disease while having a minimum impact on people’s lives. It’s a balancing act and you can never get it exactly right.”

B.C. is currently averaging anywhere between 500 and 700 new cases of COVID-19 a day. This has put a strain on the health care system and prompted more restrictions and the introduction of the vaccine passport. One of those groups that has become most vulnerable to the latest wave has been people in long-term care.

There have been several outbreaks in these facilities since August. According to the latest government report, 37 people have died from COVID in facilities where outbreaks remain active. Two died in one home where the outbreak is over. Yet, it wasn’t until last week that those employed in the homes had to have at least one shot of vaccine to continue working – which many believed was too late given the high-risk setting.

But Dr. Henry said there was a lot of mistrust about vaccines among those working in long-term care settings. This, she said, meant there had to be an education campaign to persuade those who might be hesitant that vaccines are safe and effective.

“I had hoped early on that given the level of protection the vaccines gave residents, it might be enough to ward off [breakthrough infections] but it was not sufficient,” she said.

She said once it was clear that having unvaccinated workers in long-term care homes was impacting people’s quality of life, a firm mandate became necessary. The requirement for one shot came into effect Sept. 13. The requirement for two kicks in next month.

Dr. Henry has also been criticized for not mandating university students be fully vaccinated to attend in-class sessions. Several universities across the country have made full vaccinations a must for students hoping to attend classes. In B.C., students have to show proof of full vaccination to attend campus bars and cafeterias, but not the classroom.

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The Provincial Health Officer said her concern is that a vaccine mandate for the classroom might discriminate against some students who come from backgrounds or family situations where there is wariness about vaccines.

“There are ways to make those settings [classrooms] safe without creating another barrier for marginalized people,” Dr. Henry said. “If a First Nation student who came from a community where there is a lot of anxiety about the vaccine could not go to university [because of a vaccine mandate] that would be a tragedy.”

Meantime, Dr. Henry said she recently “got off a call,” regarding a timeline for vaccinating children between the ages of six and 12. She said Pfizer is still on track to get Health Canada medical approval at the same time that it is seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

She said the company could get the necessary green light early next month in Canada. “It might be as early as the third week of October when we start distributing the vaccine for kids,” she said. “We’re gearing up to do it.” She said children get a reduced dose.

Dr. Henry said the question she most often gets asked is: How long is this disease going to be with us? She said it preoccupies her thinking as well.

“I think it’s going to be a tough fall and winter,” Dr. Henry said. “I think we are going to get through this but end up in a place where we’re living with the virus in a much-less invasive way so it doesn’t impact the health care system.

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“But it’s still going to cause serious illness in some people for the next couple of years.”

She said masks will likely be with us for some time yet, but she is “hopeful” that many of the restrictions we see now will be lifted by next spring. However, she said herd immunity – or what Dr. Henry prefers to call “community immunity” – will be tougher to obtain thanks to the Delta variant.

“With a more infectious strain of the virus it means you have to get that many more people immunized to get to that level where you’ll see fewer outbreaks in the community,” she said. “We thought at one time that if we had a vaccination rate of 80 per cent, we might get to that point but the Delta variant has thrown a wrench into that.

“Now, I think we’re going to need to get into the 90s of fully vaccinated people to begin to curve the rate of transmission back down.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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