Workers at an ice cream shop wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 at Steveston Village, in Richmond, B.C., on Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Workers at an ice cream shop wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 at Steveston Village, in Richmond, B.C., on Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Horgan’s COVID comments towards young people unhelpful, unfair: B.C. professor

Many in younger age groups are frontline workers, or parents of young children who are in school

A B.C. professor says he found comments made by the premier on Monday “quite startling and disappointing.”

Scott Lear, a health science professor at SFU, said that Monday’s press conference speaks to both how important proper messaging is and reveals how B.C.’s leadership is still not understanding how to communicate with the population.

Lear said the press conference, where officials unveiled a series of new restrictions, saw “a lot of talking but not a heck of a lot said.”

Premier John Horgan placed the blame for a recent spike in COVID-19 cases squarely on the shoulders of millennials.

“The cohort from 20 to 39 are not paying as much attention to these broadcasts and, quite frankly, are putting the rest of us in a challenging situation,” Horgan said.

“I’m asking, I’m appealing to young people to curtail your social activity.”

Horgan then continued with: “My appeal to you is do not blow this for the rest of us. Do not blow this for your parents and your neighbours and others who have been working really, really hard, making significant sacrifices so we can get good outcomes for everybody.”

Lear, who is also the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital, said the comment came across as tone deaf.

“On what planet would that actually work?” he asked

“Sure, there are people, young adults in that age group, who may be skirting the message guidelines…. that’s also prevalent in all age groups, as well. We just don’t hear hear about it as much.”

And for many other young people, Lear said, the reality is that they’re not able to simply stay home.

“They’re also the people who are in jobs that have very little financial stability, they’re in jobs that have actually been keeping the service industry and the economy afloat during this pandemic.”

Many of these jobs do not have paid sick leave and younger people, who are less likely to show serious or easily identifiable COVID symptoms, are forced to make a choice between staying home and getting a paycheque.

And even those who can stay home may be making difficult choices about whether or not to send their kids to child care or school, increasing the chances that they’ll expose their entire household to COVID.

READ MORE: B.C. should help 20-39 year olds ‘just like we did for seniors’ amid COVID surge: Furstenau

That approach, Lear said, doesn’t end with the premier. He pointed to a self-care bingo card released in February that featured activities like making blanket forts, dancing and for the free spot, crying.

“All of those things are good for self care and it probably would have been great for the communications department to put that out maybe early on in the pandemic last year, when people were sad,” he said.

“But after (so long), people are contemplating suicide, we’ve seen opioid poisonings go up. The province doesn’t support counselling as part of provincial health care and building a blanket fort is not going to help those people who’ve been dealing with mental health challenges for 10 months.”

Lear said he understands the premier’s frustration but that comments like those made Monday don’t help, but rather continue to miss the very group Horgan is targeting: young people who don’t listen to COVID briefings that happen while they’re likely at work.

The press conference also revealed, Lear said, another reason why pandemic fatigue is only growing. Although Horgan prefaced his diatribe with a statement saying “the directions from Dr. Henry will be quite clear,” they were not always so. While the closure of indoor dining, indoor group fitness and indoor church services was clear – although not foreseen by those industries – new guidance around masking were not.

“We are going to be updating our K-12 public health guidance to support mask wearing for all students down to Grade 4 in schools across the province,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday.

“We know that this needs to be done in a way that supports children to wear masks at all time when they’re in school settings and to make sure that we are doing that in a way that is positive and supportive for children.”

The provincial government website did not provide additional information, saying only that “public health guidance for schools has also been amended to support and encourage students down to Grade 4 to wear masks while at school.”

READ MORE: B.C. announces amendments to school mask mandate amid COVID surge

More than 24 hours later, the province had yet to clarify whether Henry’s comments were guidance or an order. However, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which has been pushing for increased mask wearing in B.C., called the new mask guidelines a mandate.

“Despite some vague wording, we have been assured by the Ministry of Education that today’s announcement equates to a province-wide expansion of the orders that were introduced in Surrey over the weekend,” said president Teri Mooring. “Our sincere thanks go out to the many teachers and parents who have advocated tirelessly to get this safety measure in place as an added layer of protection for teachers and students.”

Lear said the press conference left him confused.

“Is that a public order, or just saying we really, really, really want you to wear masks?” he said. Prior to Henry’s announcement, school kids in Surrey were the only ones who had to wear a mask at all times, except for when eating or if they had a disability that prevented them from doing so. In the rest of the province, middle and high school students had to wear masks except for three scenarios: when students are at their own desk or workstation, when they are eating or drinking and when there is a plexiglass barrier between them.

“The way (the change) comes across is not like, we’ve always believed masks to be an important layer and ow we think it’s the time that everybody wears masks,” Lear said. “It’s more like months or weeks of actually being against mandatory mask use, and then all of a sudden, changing.”

That, Lear said, just contributes to pandemic fatigue, reflected in flippant comments being posted online.

“People ask, okay, so masks weren’t protected for us before, but they are now? Before it was fine to go out to restaurants and now it’s not?” Lear said.

“And some of that most likely is based on where they’re seeing transmissions. But again, they’re not communicating that.”

READ MORE: B.C. stops indoor dining, fitness, religious service due to COVID-19 spike


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

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