Public health agencies abandon their responsibilities

Opinion: There is limited data on hospitalizations and deaths, now only published once a week, and little specific advice on how to avoid infection. . . while with each wave of acute illness, more people of all ages struggle with persistent symptoms and chronic conditions

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In the sixth wave of the COVID pandemic, British Columbians have been left on their own, when we need the provincial government to step in.

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In a recent article, British Columbia’s Weekly COVID-19 data report leaves the public in the dark about the next wave of Omicron, Dr. Brian Conway, Medical Director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, states that “the British Columbia has moved to a pandemic management strategy where personal responsibility rather than government mandates dictate our behavior… so let’s not rely on public health to tell us what to do, provide us with hard and fast rules, for us provide statistics. They chose to stop doing that.

It is amazing to think that public health agencies are abandoning responsibility for public health while we are still in a global pandemic. We can no longer wait for data collection, communication and guidance. Just last week, Dr. Theresa Tam said Canada was in the sixth wave of COVID. Yet here in British Columbia, there is limited data on hospitalizations and deaths, now only published once a week, and little specific advice on how to avoid infection.

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If you’ve only been following updates from the province for the past two years, you’re also unlikely to know about Long-COVID. Although our provincial governments don’t highlight it, data suggests that one in four children will experience longer-term symptoms, even after mild COVID infection.

With each wave of acute illness, more and more people of all ages struggle with persistent symptoms and chronic conditions. A growing body of research points to serious long-term health effects of COVID, including persistent fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain and memory problems.

The toll of this disease is not limited to those who suffer from a severe infection. It is not measured only in lives lost. It is an increasingly heavy toll on our communities and our economies.

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Wave after wave of responses from public health agencies and most provincial governments have been reactive. Mandates and restrictions were introduced once hospitals and the healthcare system began to buckle under the strain. This exacerbates the ripple effect of COVID.

Healthcare workers say they were exhausted. Patients are not getting the surgeries they need. Waves of acute illnesses mean more people miss work more often, leading to recurring disruptions to businesses and services.

In a recent Financial Times article, Long-COVID is described as “a disaster in the making for businesses and economies – potentially pushing significant numbers of people out of labor markets where employers are already struggling to hire”.

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Think about the illnesses of the past. Prior to 1912, the most common cause of death in Toronto was waterborne typhoid, and the age group most at risk of mortality was children under five. Toronto decided to do things differently – filtration and chlorination of drinking water was introduced, and by 1917 typhoid cases had dropped by a factor of 100. We can do the same for COVID and other respiratory viruses, but we need to follow the science and we need the political will to act.

COVID is an airborne virus, and we must focus our efforts on ensuring that indoor spaces are not environments where the virus can linger and infect people.

What action do we need to see from our governments?

We need them to tell the truth about COVID. Start with a concerted public education campaign so everyone understands the science of COVID transmission and the most effective ways to avoid infection. Make N95s widely and freely available. Continue to provide free rapid tests so people know when they pose a risk to others. Collect data from these tests and keep people informed about the level of infection in their communities.

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When it comes to health, knowledge is essential for people to make informed decisions.

Governments must also set standards and implement effective measures for indoor air quality: investing in ventilation improvements, filtration systems and high UV lamps in all public buildings, including schools , universities and government offices; and provide immediate support for businesses to invest in these air quality improvements, especially restaurants and other places where people gather and mingle.

We must be refocused on a collective mission to suppress this virus in our communities, and measure, track and report data as a way for the public to share the burden of reducing disease and protecting the most vulnerable in our communities.

Let’s clear the air, so we can live with, rather than get sick with, COVID.

Sonia Furstenau is leader of the BC Green Party and Member of Parliament for Cowichan; David Fisman is an epidemiologist and professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto.

Letters to the editor should be sent to [email protected]. The editor of the editorial pages is Hardip Johal, who can be contacted at [email protected]

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Is there more to this story? We’d love to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. E-mail [email protected].

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