By Dr. Bonnie Henry
From the very early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have spoken about the fact that although we are all in the same storm, each of us is in a different boat.
We have learned that we can ride out the roughest moments by working together and supporting each other. But we also know that at every point, with each public health order, there are some people or groups of people who have been more severely impacted than others– despite our best efforts.
For those of us in Public Health, each step has been a process of assessment of potential harms against benefits. The benefits need to outweigh the harms and we give special consideration for those who were already made vulnerable before the pandemic and who are differentially impacted by the measures. We have done this assessment with every change, with each new variant and each new surge; and we continue do it carefully and thoughtfully.
We also made a commitment to everyone in British Columbia that public health measures would only be in place for as long as necessary – and that we would gradually transition from collective requirements to collective responsibility to individual accountability.
In the early stages of the pandemic before vaccines were available, mask mandates were implemented in healthcare settings, then in indoor public settings and then in schools. Vaccines we now know are the definitive intervention that provide by far the best protection against COVID-19.
We used masks in combination with our other layers to give us the protection we needed when vaccines either didn’t exist or were not yet widely available. We extended the requirements when surges occurred to protect as many people as possible, even as we knew that some individuals – for medical or other reasons – would not be able to ride public transit or go to a religious service as a result. But always, we strived to ensure the benefits outweighed the impacts.
Now that we have reached a high level of immunity from vaccination the balance of requiring masks by a legal order is tipped.
The layers of protection we’ve used can be equated to the layers you wear on a winter’s day. Sweater, jacket, hat and gloves. Each serves a purpose, and together they provide the protection we need from the inclement weather. However, as the days get warmer and the sun shines longer, we no longer need all of the layers, all of the time. So we remove our hat, take off our gloves and then our jacket, and we find that the remaining core layers are all we need for a time.
This same approach is what we have done with the COVID-19 public health measures. We’ve removed the hat and gloves and unbuttoned our jackets. Soon all most of us will need is our core layer of keeping up to date with our vaccines. But we also recognize that some people may choose to keep their hats on, or in the case of COVID-19, wear their masks. If you are immune-compromised or facing cancer treatments then your masks should remain – not only to protect you from COVID-19, but from other viruses as well.
I recognize that rescinding the legal, enforceable requirement to wear a mask in certain indoor settings, is concerning to some. I also recognize that for people who has been unable to wear a mask and faced social isolation, or people who rely on lip reading and were no longer able to do that, the option to choose whether to wear a mask is welcome news.
The best protection we now have, our core layer, is the safe and highly effective vaccines available to all of us today, combined with following our basic safety protocols, – washing our hands, staying home when we are ill, and if we are indoors or in larger crowds, choosing to wear a mask when we feel it is appropriate.
Our goal is to never again need public health orders mandating the wearing of masks to go to the grocery store or to have limits on businesses or events. This has been a unique time that we hope never to repeat. But ultimately it is the SARS CoV-2 virus and our individual and collective actions that will determine our direction in the months and years ahead.
We are not yet through this storm, but we are in a far better place than we were just a few weeks ago. As we venture out into the world again, let’s do so steadily but cautiously, finding our balance as we go, and moving forward with science-based, data driven decisions. And respecting that we may take different paths to the same safe harbour.