Dr. Bonnie Henry is the Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia who has been been leading the province’s response on the COVID-19 pandemic and drug overdose emergency. Lynn Henry is her sister who came to B.C. in March, 2020, for a long-planned visit and ended up staying and observed her during the four weeks that changed many Canadians’ lives.
I was chairing our SAC [national Special Advisory Committee] calls that week. On March 12 we focused solely on two questions: What were we going to do about travel? And about mass gathering limitations? Although the details varied among provinces and regions, it was clear that we all believed we were at the point when we needed to take decisive action. Quebec, in particular, had been seeing rapidly rising numbers of cases – many related to travel, especially to France. That province’s March break had started the week before, and now, as families were returning, their case numbers were soaring. The province had decided to announce restrictions on gatherings and to impose mandatory self-isolation for fourteen days on anyone returning from outside of Canada. Ontario, which was in the same boat as B.C. with respect to March break, wasn’t looking to impose restrictions on returning travellers but was considering limiting mass gatherings. Across the country, all public health leaders were thinking alike on that issue after seeing how COVID-19 could spread rapidly at curling bonspiels, conferences, and so on: we agreed that restricting numbers to 250 was a reasonable place to start, but that this would have to be discussed with our respective health ministers and premiers and was therefore subject to change. The issue of travel was more complicated: our borders were a federal responsibility, and so it was up to the chief public health officer and the government of Canada to enact measures under the federal Quarantine Act.
Coming off the SAC call, I reviewed where we were with the cases in B.C.: more cases from returning travellers – from everywhere but particularly Washington State; more cases related to the dental conference; the potential for thousands of families to head off on March break into an unknown risk and to bring that risk back. Things were changing rapidly around the world as countries had started imposing lockdowns in response to rising case numbers, often stranding travellers in place for what could be weeks or months.
I put another call in to my Washington State colleagues to gauge what was going on there; I knew they had a strong public health program but was increasingly concerned by their lack of access to testing. The state epidemiologist confirmed my worries: “We have community spread,” she said right away. “A lot.” Recent access to testing from the University of Washington had exposed what they’d been dreading: the virus had been silently spreading and was now affecting large numbers of people; hospitals were filling up and long-term care homes were being devastated. We’d been holding our own here in B.C., but there was no way we could keep up with the flood of cases from Washington on top of the dental conference outbreak and the potential spike in cases from travel during March break. I knew we needed to take action, and take it that very day.
I made my way to the health minister’s office in the hours before our media brief that day, knowing this was a monumental decision and that we’d need to make it together. And if the minister agreed, we’d need to get approval from the premier as well. I ran through my thoughts and proposed actions with the minister and deputy minister, and we talked through the implications of each measure. We needed to let people know that they shouldn’t travel outside Canada for March break – not to Europe, not to Asia, not to Washington State. Borders were a federal responsibility, but under the B.C. Public Health Act I had the authority to impose restrictions on people who returned to the province. And so I would require, under a Provincial Health Officer order, that anyone returning from outside Canada must self-isolate at home for fourteen days upon their return. We’d put provisions in place for essential workers so that they could still carry on their roles while isolating when not at work. And we would impose limits of 250 people at any gathering.
As I walked through all the considerations, the minister and deputy minister nodded. We were all struck by the enormity and the uncertainty of what lay ahead, but we knew it was the right decision. Premier Horgan agreed. Our briefings in the past weeks had given him the deep background he needed in order to understand both the rationale for our recommendations and their ramifications.
The briefing that day was another sombre one, as the implications of these new measures sank in.
I walked home that evening feeling exhausted and slightly stunned. I’d been involved with research, planning, and reviewing the measures for controlling pandemics for almost thirty years, but until today I hadn’t truly believed that I would ever, ever use them. And as this pandemic – officially and finally declared as such on March 11, just the day before – progressed, I also knew it wouldn’t end there.
I poured myself a glass of wine and sat on my couch in silence. My sister was arriving later that night from Toronto; it would be a very different visit from the one we’d planned.
[in Lynn Henry’s words]
It was near midnight in B.C. when the taxi pulled up to my sister’s house in a seaside neighbourhood of Victoria. During the half-hour ride from the airport, as the car whisked along the empty highway and soundlessly into town – past my sister’s office building on Blanshard where it glanced sideways at Chinatown, past the gingerbread-house lights icing the legislature and a spatter of stars reflecting in the harbour, past the weathered family of totem poles still talking to land and sky beside the shut-down, concrete-clad museum. I had scrolled through a string of urgent emails from downtown Toronto. Our office building was to close. Most of us would work remotely, from home, for the indefinite future. I reached inside my hand luggage to touch the reassuring cold metal of my laptop.
The porch light flicked on and Bonnie stepped out to hug me. She was wearing light cotton sweats and holding a half glass of white wine, and her face had an odd expression. I think now that it was part heartsick shock, part self-deprecating bemusement, part utter disbelief. That afternoon, at her daily televised press conference, she’d taken the bold, controversial, potentially unpopular step of restricting travel, asking the people of British Columbia not to leave Canada for March break – only three days before that much-anticipated holiday was to begin. In part, this decision arose out of a piece of great luck for B.C.: the province’s March break was happening two weeks later than a similar break in Quebec – and alarming news of infection among returning travellers, especially those coming home from trips to France and greater Europe, was being shared among senior public health officers nationally.
“I’ve trained for this moment for a good part of my life,” Bonnie would tell me a few days later. I was following her around the kitchen and living room, trying not to annoy her while asking questions and scribbling her answers in a notebook. Days before my trip, I had been asked by a publisher back in Toronto to extract from my sister a new introduction to a book she’d written a decade earlier on public health, a book that was now being re-released. The process of word-pulling was proving trickier than I had anticipated (I’d quickly realized there was no chance of Bonnie sitting calmly at her computer, dashing off lines of crisp copy), and I had decided the only solution was to catch her thoughts on the fly and pin them to the page myself. “I’ve attended conferences around the world, I’ve consulted and planned and consulted again. I’ve helped write up pandemic protocols.” She stopped and looked at me, then nodded quizzically at my notebook. Actually, as I was suddenly, guiltily aware, her notebook: a soft sky-blue one debossed with the words Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that I had found in a cabinet beside the kitchen table. She sighed. “But I never, ever, ever thought I would put them into action like this.”
On the night I arrived, though, she said nothing like this. Instead, she ushered me in, waved me and my luggage towards her den-turned-spare-room, and poured me a matching small glass of wine, a nightcap. Then she curled up wearily on her favourite spot in the living room, a silvery velvet chaise longue.
I raised my glass to her and smiled. “Our mother says you look tired.”
Bonnie grimaced. “I wish people would stop telling me that.”
Excerpted from Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe: Four Weeks that Shaped a Pandemic. Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Bonnie Henry and Lynn Henry. Published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.