Skip to main content

Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver this morning.

By the time students across British Columbia get back to their classrooms from spring break, they will no longer need to be wearing masks at school. On Thursday, the province joined others across the country in announcing mask mandates would end everywhere outside health care facilities by the end of spring break, with most of the requirements ending just after midnight on Friday morning.

The requirement to show proof of vaccination to get into restaurants, movie theatres and other venues will end April 8 as the Omicron wave recedes.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry also walked back a plan to require all regulated health care professionals to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by March 24 to maintain their right to practise. The order that covers workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities remains in place, but the deadline for other professional health workers such as chiropractors and naturopaths is now up in the air.

Precisely two years after the World Health Organization declared a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said he hoped Thursday was the last regular COVID-19 briefing he and Dr. Henry would have to give.

“The measures taken today are a positive step and they reflect where we stand today,” Mr. Dix said.

Some people, such as the elderly and those who are immune-compromised, will need to continue to take precautions, Dr. Henry said, noting that although the risk has dropped considerably, she would continue to wear a mask on public transit, for example, even though it is no longer required.

For those who have been diligently avoiding risk for the past two years, “it’s going to take some time to build that confidence again to go to those places. And I encourage people to take your own time and wear your own masks as long as you feel comfortable doing so.”

Dr. Henry cautioned that measures could return if cases begin to overwhelm the health care system again, and she noted many workplaces may still impose their own safety requirements. “Some places may feel that it’s important for their workers to be protected for various reasons. And they can require mask-wearing. They can require the vaccine card in certain settings, but they need to do their own diligence of what that means and how that will impact their workplace.”

That might be difficult for some employers to do in light of a letter sent by Patricia Daly, the Chief Medical Health Officer of Vancouver Coastal Health, and co-signed by her deputy and two other medical health officers in the authority.

The letter, written Feb. 16, was intended to “strongly advise” the University of British Columbia to drop plans to deregister students who had not declared their vaccination status nor complied with mandatory testing. The letter also noted that mandatory rapid tests for unvaccinated students and staff and any employment sanctions are “not useful” for preventing COVID-19 transmission on campus.

Dr. Daly noted that current scientific evidence, including B.C. data, shows the two doses of COVID-19 vaccination, “while effective at preventing severe illness, is not effective at preventing infection or transmission of the Omicron variant of the virus.” It goes on to say that there is no material difference that a UBC student or staff member who is vaccinated or unvaccinated may be infectious.

Then the letter references a “evidence review and analysis” preprint study entitled The Unintended Consequences of COVID-19 Vaccine Policy: Why Mandates, Passports and Segregated Lockdowns May Cause more Harm than Good. The letter quotes from the study, saying such policies “may lead to detrimental long-term impacts on uptake of future public-health measures, including COVID-19 vaccines themselves as well as routine immunizations.”

UBC eventually dropped its plans.

So if that was Vancouver Coastal Health’s position about vaccination requirements on Feb. 16, why is British Columbia maintaining its vaccine passport system until April 8?

Both Dr. Henry and Mr. Dix dismissed the paper as “opinion,” though an opinion Dr. Henry noted is worthy of consideration.

However, even the authors of the paper itself appear to hedge the declaration in the title that some measures “cause more harm than good.”

“We encourage social and behavioural scientists, bioethicists, epidemiologists, legal scholars, and others to urgently empirically assess the benefits and harms of COVID-19 vaccination policies. Empiric assessments may or may not validate the concerns presented in this paper – but their generation is critical in engagement with politicians, scientists, and organizations to reconsider current COVID-19 policies affecting those who remain unvaccinated.”

Said Mr. Dix: “That paper is an extended social sciences argument – really it’s a lengthy op-ed piece,” he said. “Public health does not share that point of view.”

Dr. Henry has been cautious about declaring COVID-19 over. “This virus is still with us,” she said, repeating a warning she has made many times.

Vancouver Coastal Health’s decision to elevate the opinion that some of the more severe – and effective – tactics to combat COVID-19 cause more harm than good may prove to have been dubious if the province is once again forced to act to suppress another variant.

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.