The following video is a recording of a town hall meeting held by Dr. Bonnie Henry and her team on May 28, 2021 regarding the preliminary public health guidance for September 2021 in the COVID-19 Return-to-Campus Primer. An edited transcript is available below.
The transcript below was transcribed by otter.ai and has been edited by OCSU staff for clarity. For ease of reference, we have also embedded links to all documents and other important pieces of information discussed in the town hall.
If you have any comments, questions, or concerns about this transcript, please email us with your feedback.
[Start of transcription]
Brett Fairbairn: Good morning to students from across British Columbia. My name is Brett Fairbairn and I’m president at Thompson Rivers University (TRU). This is a special town hall for student leaders from across BC’s post secondary institutions, with representatives from the provincial health office. All of us are joining virtually but we each have our feet on the ground somewhere. I’ll ask you to take a moment to think about the land that you’re on and the people who have stewarded it since time immemorial; the land, the plants and animals, the air and water, our sources for our strength and inspiration. And we’ve learned anew during this pandemic that outdoors in BC is one of the healthiest places to be. Here at TRU’s Kamloops campus, I honour Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc as my first house within the ancestral and unceded territory of Secwepemcúĺecw. Mentioning Tk’emlúps, all of us here in Kamloops are somewhat shaken this morning by news late yesterday that’s left many people here, and in areas far beyond, shocked and grieving this morning. Our thoughts are with them.
15 months ago in March of 20, the way we experienced education changed radically. Since the pandemic hit, we’ve been teaching and studying together, but from a distance. It’s been a challenging time for students here at TRU and across the province. It’s heartening to know that the BC Restart Plan announced this week will bring us back together in person safely for the fall. With this week’s announcement and updates underway to the provincial Go Forward guidelines for our sector. We’re looking forward to our campuses being full of activity and excitement as they once were. Yet we know that there are still many questions and even hesitation from some students. It’s important that we recognize and address such concerns. I hope today’s event will help ease some of the anxiety out there, since we’ll be hearing directly from the provincial health office, which has our safety at the core of their decisions. On that note, thank you warmly and genuinely to Dr. Henry, Dr. Emerson, Dr. Gustafson, and Dr. Ballem for taking the time out of their very busy schedules to be here today. I’d also like to thank the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training for helping to make this event happen. And I’ll now hand over to our moderator Matt Milovick, who will then turn it over to Dr. Henry to introduce her team.
Matt Milovick: Thank you, Brett. Good morning, students. And thank you for taking the time to be with us for our second provincial town hall with Dr. Henry and her team. My name is Matt Milovick. I’m the Vice President Administration and Finance at TRU, as well as the chair of the Go Forward Guidelines Steering Committee, and I will be moderating today’s Q&A. So the goal of today’s Town Hall is to address student concerns about Full Return to Campus and to provide students with context and perspective about what Return to Campus is expected to look like since the release of the COVID-19 Return to Campus primer, which came out on April 30. Much has changed; and, being cautiously optimistic, much more is expected to change for the better. So before we get to the questions, I’d like to welcome Dr. Bonnie Henry to introduce your team and to offer any introductory remarks, Dr. Henry.
Dr. Bonnie Henry: Good morning. And thank you. And thank you all for the opportunity of having this session with you to have some questions answered and to have some dialogue about an important issue. And I do want to start by recognizing, with gratitude, that I am on the traditional and unceded territory of the lək̓ʷəŋən speaking people, now known as the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations, and recognize the traditional keepers of this land. And I’m very grateful to be able to work and live on these wonderful, wonderful lands.
I will start by introducing my team, who’s on — er, or part of our team — that’s on the call here this morning. First is Dr. Réka Gustafson, who is the, ah, Deputy Provincial Health Officer; but also a VP and the lead of the the BC Centre for Disease Control, which is part of the Provincial Health Services Authority. And Réka has been really leading our team in making sure that we’re doing everything we can to support post secondary institutions and to support young people in particular in their educational needs through this really challenging last few [chuckles] last year and a bit. And it’s with her leadership that we’ve developed the guidance that you see and we’ll be talking about where we’re going, and with how we see the next year coming. So Réka will be answering all of the tough questions today.
I also have Dr. Brian Emerson on the line. And Brian is another Deputy Provincial Health Officer in my office, and has been working on a lot of the behind-the-scenes legal details that go into all of the orders and things that we have done, and has also been part of the team that’s been working on [addressing]: How do we provide the best guidance to post secondary institutions across the province?
And finally, we have Dr. Penny Ballem, who is a more recent addition to our team, as she took over as the leader of our Immunization Program in BC. So really grateful to have Penny — Dr. Ballem. She’s got a long history of leadership and in health and in the City of Vancouver. And we’re just really grateful that she was able to come in and really corral all the resources that we needed to get our Provincial Immunization program going.
So without further ado, I will say a few little things about how we’ve been. We’ve been seized with the impacts this pandemic has had, on a number of different groups, but particularly on our elders and seniors; we know the virus has hit them hard. But there is no group that has been more impacted in negative ways than young people, and particularly that group of people who were transitioning from high school, and missed the whole important ceremonies that those transitions usually have. And then going to a university environment for many of them that was remote and online, and not being able to make those connections, those social connections, having those finding your way in the world. Getting those ideas and thoughts and how we interrelate and find what our passions are, that comes with being in a post secondary institution; going to university making all of the important things that happen. That is more than just being in a classroom and learning. It’s all about both social emotional, physical growth, and growth intellectually as well. And it is incredibly important, we believe, to get that back as best as we can, as soon as we can, and as safely as we can. And I know, I have to hold my hands up to the many, many people who work in our post secondary institutions around the province, including all of you, as student leaders, who have really risen to a most challenging time and done amazing things to keep people connected as best we can, through this rapid shift in how we do learning. But it is time for us to get back to those important roles that we have in supporting people to be in classrooms, to be on campus, to connect with people in a way that is physical and as well as the online intellectual.
So, I have said from the very beginning that we are globally in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. And that reflects different communities in our province, across the country and around the world. And we need to take that into account as we move through these next few weeks and months and get back to a post-pandemic world. And we are confident that we can do that. And the main reason we have that confidence, we talked about that this week with our Restart Plan, is that we now have the amazing tool of vaccines on our side. And the fact that we have, within a year, vaccines that are safe and effective and effective in all groups of people — that it is really nothing short of miraculous. That we have vaccines that work so effectively in older people, in people whose immune systems are compromised, and in the general population as well. So we have learned over the last few months since our immunization program has started, that we can indeed get a very high level of protection in our community from people being immunized. And that allows us to get back to doing some of those important connections that we have put aside for so long.
As we have seen here in British Columbia, immunization rates have gone up. And we’ve focused our attention on protecting those who are most at risk of severe illness and deaths from COVID-19, and we are also seeing our transmission rates go down. So we’re in a bridging period still, where we still have this virus circulating in our community quite widely. And, we have more and more people being protected through immunization. So our restart is based on being able to find that balance.
Our goals of our program from the very beginning has been to reduce morbidity and mortality, which means sickness and death, to keep our healthcare system functioning. And that has meant that we have had to shut down certain things for periods of time. But we’re now getting that back as well. And really, really importantly, in something we’ve taken to heart, in Public Health here and BC, is to minimize societal disruption. And we’re now at the point where the impact of the measures we’re taking across society need to be balanced with the risk of the virus, and the fact that we have vaccines to protect people. So that is how our Restart Plan is based. It’s based on taking away the restrictions on society that have the most negative impact, and moving forward with protecting more people as we get through the summer. So part of that now means that as of a couple of weeks ago, we now have the vaccine available to people as young as 12. And we’re getting our immunization rates up, and people should be able to receive their second dose of vaccine, which is incredibly important both for personal protection, and to maximize the amount of protection in our community by the end of the summer. So this means, again, that we will be able to get back to a semblance of life and learning in post secondary institutions across the province in September that will be different, will be post-pandemic. We’ll still have to live with COVID.
And there are things that we don’t yet know; we don’t yet know if we’ll need to have booster doses, we don’t yet know if there’s going to be a strain of the virus arising in the world that is going to make us need another dose of vaccine sooner. But we do know that this is a virus that is being transmitted between people, we know how to stop it, we know the measures that we can take to prevent transmission. And we know that there’s things we do as individuals and as communities that will work. So we will go back to managing COVID as yet another respiratory virus that affects us in our communities, usually worse in the respiratory season in the fall and winter. But Public Health knows how to manage these and has worked with post secondary institutions on other types of similar infections that happen all the time. Things like tuberculosis, and measles, and pertussis; and we have these outbreaks that happen in post secondary institutions in residences. And we work with you to manage those, to keep transmission down to protect people. And we don’t have to have all those broad measures on society that we have had to, due to the pandemic phase where we didn’t know a lot about this virus, and everybody in the community essentially was susceptible to it. We’re in a different place now with vaccines, with the knowledge that we have about how this virus is spread. And that means when we get to September, we’ll be able to come back in to campus and have that important learning in a different way. And I know there are many, many questions. And we’ll just get to those and answer those specifically.
But I wanted to start with saying, we are in a different place now than we were a year ago and even a few months ago. And that means we need to start planning for, “How do we get our lives back?”, and the important role that we have in post secondary institutions of caring for students of learning, and of getting our social connections back again, as well. I will say as well, we’re watching globally. And we’re going slowly, because we know that this virus, as we have to remind ourselves, we don’t yet know everything about it. And we need to pay attention to what’s happening around the world and around our communities. And as one of the reporters asked me yesterday, you know, “How do we know we’re not going to get another brick to the head?” Well, we don’t actually know that. But we’ll be watching carefully. And we’ll be adjusting as we need to, as things change. But I am confident that with the vaccines that we have, and the effectiveness of these vaccines, that we’re going to get through the pandemic, and we’re going to learn how we need to live with this virus in our lives for the foreseeable future. So I’ll stop there and turn it over to Matt and we’ll get to questions.
Milovick: Okay, thank you for those remarks. Dr. Henry, I think that’s a great way to start an important context for today’s discussion. Just by way of a little bit of housekeeping, I just want to remind all the participants that the session is being recorded and a video Q&A will be available to all institutions as soon as possible. We had 30 plus questions submitted to the slideshow app. Obviously, we can’t get to all of them in the time that we have, but we will address the ones that were uploaded the most as a priority. Not all the questions that were asked were within the PHS purview to respond to and depending on the question, those will be referred to the appropriate body. That said, the Go Forward Guideline Steering Group will also review those questions for potential inclusion in the full revised guidelines, which we expect to release sometime in June. As we did last time, we’ve organized the questions into six themes: controls, accommodations, vaccinations, outbreaks, Go Forward Guidelines implementation, and international students.
So Dr. Henry and team, if you’re ready to go, here’s our first question — one that is probably not surprising, and one you get asked probably 20 times a day. But will all students and staff wear masks on campus?
Dr. Henry: So I’ll start with that. And then I’ll ask Réka to pick up? So the short answer is sometimes, maybe. Because as we go through this, we have learned that there are times when wearing masks is important, it’s important when we have a lot of transmission in our community. And when you don’t know, if you’re in a particularly indoor enclosed space, with a lot of other people, there may be somebody who has COVID, who’s not realizing it. And masks are important for keeping my own secretions in and protecting others. And they do have some ability to protect me from inhaling other people’s droplets. So there are times when masks are important right now, particularly where we still have quite a bit of this virus circulating and not everybody is protected. So coming and going through the summer, but as we see, as we get less virus in our communities, the wearing of masks will not be needed in most situations. And, you know, our expectation is that once we get to the fall, if we continue to have very low circulation of the virus that we won’t be needing to wear masks in most situations. Having said that, we know that influenza season happens. It didn’t happen last year, because of all the measures we were taking partly, and partly because we didn’t have as much international travel. So that’s one of the other things that is a factor in this. So there’s likely to be times as we go into the next respiratory season, where you will have to wear masks periodically. And it will come down to a number of things. One, if we have a cluster or outbreak. And in a residence or in a group of people at the university. Those people who have been exposed may need to wear masks. And we’ll need to take that personal responsibility that we have, and think of all the time that we started thinking about early on in this. And that’s, you know, cleaning our hands regularly, staying away from others, getting tested if we’re not feeling well ourselves. And we’ve been looking at a number of different models of having testing available on campuses to support that, so that we can detect an outbreak early, and then working with Public Health to make sure that anybody who has been exposed stays away from others during those periods of time. So masks will be part of how we protect ourselves and others during respiratory season. But it won’t be needed widespread as it is now, when everybody is susceptible. Réka, did you want to add to that?
Dr. Réka Gustafson: Yeah, just really strengthen. I think that’s a really great point to make about most of our measures, where we are going from a situation where we were all susceptible, the entire population was susceptible, and there was a degree of circulation of COVID-19. So many of our behaviors were kind of everywhere, all the time. And what vaccination will change, is that there may still be a low level of circulation of COVID-19. But most of us will not be susceptible. So things like masks will be potentially a way to protect ourselves in specific situations. But they will not be an “everywhere all the time” kind of recommendation, that they are right now. And that actually probably summarizes the nature of the shift of how we learn to live with COVID when most of us in fact are not susceptible. So I thought that was a great answer, that “sometimes maybe” and I think it really is a specific situation. So we’re going from generalized broad measures to specific measures when necessary.
Milovick: Thanks Réka. Thanks, Dr. Henry. Here’s a question I’m not surprised to see has been uploaded. A lot of the student associations are in a bit of a planning limbo right now, wondering how to plan for the fall, what kind of events are appropriate? So the question is, what sort of welcome back clubs and social activities are students societies allowed to do on campus
Dr. Henry: Do you want to start that one, Réka?
Dr. Gustafson: So you will see that over the next few months, restrictions on activities will be gradually lifted. The kind of events that are not likely to be happening in September, are very, very large gatherings in a stadium or events like that. What will change is that how we do those kinds of events safely, we’ll have changed somewhat based on what we’ve learned from COVID. So there will be recommendations as you’re planning it to avoid unnecessarily unnecessary crowding, to make sure that there is a way for people to, you know, reminding people not to come if they’re sick, potential things like that. So, there is a shift. And I think by the time September comes along — and of course we will continue to monitor disease trends, in order to make sure we are still in the place we want to be — we are not actually expecting restrictions or safety requirements that actually prevent you from having the event. You may be asked to arrange the tables in a slightly different way, you may be asked to think about how to avoid unnecessary crowding, and unnecessarily close contact. And we’ve learned a great deal about how to do that. And that’s the kind of thing that will be in our general guidelines.
We also recommend, of course, that we will be monitoring immunization rates. One of the things that will allow those kinds of events to occur with as little restriction as possible is having most people immunized. So one of the important prevention measures will be, and Dr. Ballem is here, to make sure that students have the opportunity to be vaccinated and get both of their doses of vaccine. So as you’re thinking through your Welcome Back events, think through how not to make them uncontrolled, very crowded, and indoors, prefer outdoors over indoors September will hopefully be nicer. It’s still nice to think through how to potentially manage the coming in and out of people, maybe even think through how you can make sure you know who was there. So there are a number of these guidelines that Dr. Emerson and and and a team is working to actually articulate clearly, so that we can get to a place where we think about COVID, we think about preventing COVID, but we aren’t stopping what we are wanting to do or need to do because of COVID. And again, by September, there will be some large events that will still require potential limitation at that time. But the kind of club events that I recall, which were sort of a modest number of people, will likely be able to go ahead with a bit of thought and planning.
Dr. Henry: I’ll just add to that, because I think there’s a couple of really important points, and we are still reeling from the effects of this pandemic and will be by September. So thinking about small; thinking about outdoors; thinking about having, you know, smaller groups that are doing things concurrently in different areas, rather than having one large group of people; thinking about ventilation if you are indoors, and recognizing as well that that our level of risk tolerance varies. And we’ve all been through this, you know, year and a half, in our different journeys together. And not everybody will be comfortable being in a group, especially a larger group, especially indoors. And so allowing for people to wear masks, allowing for people to have alternatives, ways of participating that may not involve coming together. I think finding those hybrid ways of doing things would be really important as well, and making it okay for people not to attend if they’re feeling unwell or if they’re feeling uncomfortable.
Milovick: Okay, that’s a great response. Let’s go indoors for a moment. At many of our institutions, classes can be up to 300 even over 300 students in classes and spaces. How can students be safe — how can they be safe when students won’t necessarily have both vaccine doses?
Dr. Henry: One way is we encourage people to have both vaccine doses. But the other thing is, we have learned a lot about how environments are structured. So these are structured environments, even though we have a large number of people, and we know who they are. So it can be as simple as, it’s often the pre-class and post-class where the risk is greatest because people are mixing in a different way. So having assigned seating, knowing who’s in each class every day, making sure that we can find people if there is an issue; these are going to be more important this year. And then as we learn more and more about how the virus is changing over time, these will change as well. But thinking this year about, if you’re in a structured seated environment, the risk is actually very low. So we can go back into the classroom safely, we can make sure that we’re doing it in a way that’s moderated. And I know Réka has thought a lot about these, so I’ll turn it over to her.
Dr. Gustafson: Thank you. So really, just focusing on what Dr. Henry said about the difference between structured and unstructured environments. So we have now followed up, and I don’t have it in front of me, but one hundred and some-odd thousand cases of COVID-19 in British Columbia alone. And, the patterns of transmission have actually become quite consistent. So where COVID-19 is most likely to be transmitted, is when there’s somebody sick in your home, or in a congregate setting where you’re living and you have very close repeated interactions with that person. We have some work sites where similar interactions are occurring. So sometimes, we even had outbreaks or clusters that were associated with a workplace, but when you actually investigated them, it really was the informal interactions outside of the workplace. Not all the time, but a lot of the time, that was where transmission was occurring. So first of all, we understand how transmission tends to occur. And again, it doesn’t tend to be in classrooms. The other is, every single student will have the opportunity to be vaccinated and have received two doses of vaccine. So we will be in a very different situation. And one of the things that people often ask is, “Will COVID-19 disappear?” It won’t, but it’ll be similar to the risks that we live with every single day. And we have seasonal increases in respiratory viruses, and we take common sense approaches to try to reduce our risk, so we try to stay away if we’re sick. There may be some new activities, sometimes we all might wear a mask. I think some social norms will change.
But I think your question is, is that “Is going to a class going to present me with an excess risk, or an unacceptable excess risk?” And the answer is actually: Structured activities and structured environments do not present an excess risk to people compared to the other environments that they normally interact in, such as their home in that community.
Milovick: Okay, thanks, Dr. Gustafson. Let’s move on to the accommodations theme. So the question here is — and I think this is great, that students are thinking about this, student societies are thinking about this — but what tools and messaging can student societies use to make students feel more comfortable about moving away from restrictions like mask wearing?
Dr. Gustafson: Well, can I start, is that okay? Okay so I think, and then I’ll hand it over to Dr. Henry, I think that we need to feel comfortable — I actually think that’s going to be one of our biggest jobs. We’ve been through a fundamental experience together. And we in Public Health, have asked you to think about COVID in everything you do, because that was the tool we had at hand. We’re in a situation where we have a virus circulating where everyone’s susceptible, where we have no vaccine, where we are still learning about the virus. And even though it’s a relatively small proportion of people who get very sick, when everybody is getting the infection of that at the same time, at any one time, that can be a large group of people. So I think the question of, “How do we help people feel comfortable?” I think we need to actually, over the next several months, build a shared understanding of what has changed. And even as we’re conversing about this among Public Health, we realize that we need to come up with the words together, what has changed. And the reason, again, we asked everybody to think about COVID-19 all the time, is because we were learning about COVID-19. And because that was the primary tool that we had to respond to COVID-19. We didn’t have the same things that we had with other respiratory viruses. We circulate among the human populations for a while, and therefore some people will be immune because they met the virus. And for many of them, we have vaccines. Immunization has fundamentally changed that equation. And one of the things that we did in British Columbia, which I’m very happy about, is that we did give the first dose to everybody first. So I actually think we will live for a couple of months with low levels of transmission, and as we build a shared understanding and a level of comfort.
The other thing that I think will be important is that in residences, it’s like your home, but you have your room where you can be safe. You have your group of people that you’re interacting with, and, I think people, over time — and this is something that I’ve really learned with actually the school sector — that as people are experiencing the interaction, they gain more comfort. So go slow, go step by step, and be compassionate to people’s level of comfort. If they want to go out, great; if not yet, invite them again in a couple of weeks, because it might take them a while to get there. So I would say that, in an immunized population, with some very basic safety measures, residences can also be a very, very safe and low COVID risk place to be. There is a Public Health system ready to respond to any events, and again, I think the experience over the next several months will help us to unlearn many of the things that we needed to learn to get through this very significant global event over the last 16 months.
Dr. Henry: And I’ll just add that you need to start thinking about how you will support students who are ill and aren’t sure about what’s going on. How do we find ways to help them, support them, to safely isolate if they’re not feeling well? So things like, is there a way that we can provide people with their meals in their rooms and, and support them if they’re going through a period of time when they aren’t feeling well. So those are the things that we’ll have to put in place in residences. I think we can learn as well from how many programs have been safely operating. And then I think of all of the healthcare worker training programs that have been safely operating, and post secondary institutions across the province, and learning about our getting through the last year and a bit, and take those learnings and apply them to our new environment to come this September. But even recognizing that there will need to be availability of testing and masks and a place for people to safely isolate, and how can we as a student community support people when they’re in that situation?
Milovick: Excellent. So here’s a question that might not be in the right form for the PHO to answer, but let me ask it, then I’ll perhaps contextualize a little bit. So the question is this: What forms of guidelines will be implemented for professors or instructors for international, immunocompromised students who are unable to return to campus? And so this might be a question of who is immunocompromised, and what that means. You’re on mute, Dr. Henry.
Dr. Henry: So, you know, immunocompromised means many, many things, and there’s many different reasons why people’s immune system may not be as good as another. And sometimes that’s related to medications, that can be related to age, it can be related to underlying health conditions. But the one thing that we do know is that the immunizations that we have, the vaccines that we have, work. And they protect people, regardless of their immune status, and particularly after two doses, but it also is the fact that everybody else around you is protected as well. And that keeps the risk low for everybody, even people whose immune systems don’t respond as well to vaccines.
So two messages: One is we’ve always had people with immunocompromised conditions, who live in residence, who work, who go to university and can safely do that. And it may mean that they will take more personal precautions, may not go to those group settings, may take advantage of the hybrid learning opportunities that they have, may wear masks more frequently. All of those things that we do to protect ourselves personally, and people have been doing that for many, many years. And this is the same, we all probably recognize it more. But the other really important thing is how important it is for us all to be immunized. And because that protects us as a community as well. And so if I can say anything, it is vaccines that are going to get us out of this pandemic, and going to help us get through this next year living with COVID. And so everybody should be immunized and you should be supporting each other, take a load and get immunized. And we had this conversation with the leaders of the post secondary institutions about how important it will be to have opportunities for people who have not yet been immunized to receive their vaccines when they come to universities and colleges and, and making sure that those services are available for people.
Milovick: So that is it, that’s a great segue to the vaccinations theme. So the question is this: Students, faculty members and staff are encouraged to get a vaccine, but how can we manage since there are some who still refuse to receive one?
Dr. Henry: You know, I think we’ve done a lot of thinking about what we call vaccine hesitancy. There are very few people, in Canada anyway, or in BC, who are absolutely against vaccines. And the same with these vaccines. There’s a lot of people who have questions, and quite rightly so, for a variety of different reasons. And we’ve done some work with the BC Centre for Disease Control and our immunization team about why people are hesitant, or what questions they have. And some people it’s about, you know, “will the needle hurt?” and the whole needle-phobia; others it’s about, “these are new vaccines and new platforms, and what does that mean? And what are the long term effects?” And those are all things that we have learned an awful lot about. So those are — number one is we need to answer people’s questions, we need to understand what their questions are. We need to answer their questions in a way that gives them the information they need. And we’re trying to do that. There’s a lot of really good information on the BC CDC website, for example. And then we also know that particularly for young people, what we hear is, you know, “what’s in it for me?” And I don’t mean that in any negative way at all. But it is important, because we know that young people have been differentially affected — you know, your job prospects, the lack of the important transitions in life, not being able to go back to school. So there are important things that this does mean for each of us. And that is personal protection, so that I don’t get sick, I don’t bring it home to my family, my people that I’m closest to, the people I love; but also, as a community, it allows us to get back to those important things in our lives. So there are many different reasons why we need to support each other to get the answers that we need to questions, and to support each other to get out and get immunized. And I don’t know, Penny, if you want to add to that? I know Dr. Ballem’s on the line here.
Dr. Penny Ballem: Yes, thanks so much, Bonnie. And, yes, just to support — just the message that all of you, and all your networks, and whatever way you have, to speak to your colleagues to encourage them. There’s a massive capacity for vaccination across our province in every community. We really encourage you to, you know, get vaccinated yourself and get your friends and colleagues and your whole network to do the same. We also have spent a fair amount of time talking with the leadership in the universities and colleges to make sure that, you know, come September there will be people who come on to the campus who may not have been able for whatever reason to access a vaccine or only one dose. And we will ensure that it’s very, very easy and clear how people can access either their second dose, or their first and second dose while they’re, you know, at university. So we know there’s international students coming in, and I saw a number of questions about other vaccines that are not licensed in Canada. And you know, those are questions for Dr. Henry. But generally, our goal is to make sure that all of you coming back to campuses across British Columbia, understand, you know, that we encourage you to get vaccinated before you come. And that if for whatever reason you haven’t been able to complete that schedule or haven’t yet accessed it, that we will — we will make it as easy as possible for that to happen.
Milovick: Okay, and that’s a great segue, actually, to this next question. And again, still on the theme of vaccinations. How will you ensure that the vaccine distribution process is equitable and ensure that pop-up vaccination sites are effectively communicated?
Dr. Ballem: Well, I think I’ll take that one Bonnie. We have, you know, a pretty comprehensive communication plan and we’ve used pop-up clinics to go to places and reach, you know, members of our public and populations in our province where, for whatever reason, they haven’t yet accessed it. We have very, very good information in the province, we’re very fortunate to be able to track and basically do small geographic areas where we have had people vaccinated and where we have seemingly more hesitancy or for whatever reason. It is not as many people or proportion of the population vaccinated, we’re tracking that very carefully across all age groups. So throughout the summer, we’ll be working very, very hard to engage anywhere and everywhere in the province, where we know that the rates of vaccination are lower. And when we get to the university campuses, you know, starting at the end of August in the fall, I think we can, we will work very hard to make sure there’s good signage that your whole digital communication channels and social media are very clear about where students and faculty can access a vaccination. So a very important part of what we do is to communicate where, how, and use multi-channel, you know, mechanisms to reach people who learn their news and find out information differently.
Dr. Gustafson: Can I just add one quick thing? Whoever asked that question, have you considered a public career in public health? Because equitable access to vaccines has been what Dr. Ballem And Dr. Henry have been working on for two months. So, thank you for asking that question.
Dr. Henry: Yeah, I think that is, that is exactly right. I was thinking, you know, “How do I, how do you, as student leaders, ensure that we are held to account for equity and be able to offer it to those who need it?” And we’ve done, we’re working on, how do we get out to different communities? We have very much started with making sure that those most at risk, again, are immunized first. And it is something that we will continue, but we’ll take any ideas you have of how to reach people that you know in your communities and how to do that. Maybe that’s what we can do as part of Frosh Week — having returning to campus and having your vaccine clinics at the same time.
Milovick: I like that idea. Let’s — we’re gonna transition a little bit to international students, but it’s still on the theme of vaccination. So I have two questions along that line. So, what if the student, an international student, gets the first vaccination dose in his or her home country? Will they get the second one here?
Dr. Henry: So the short answer is yes. We have made a decision from very early on, and it goes to the previous question about equity, that we will provide vaccine to anybody in BC. You don’t have to be a resident, you don’t have to be signed up to our Medical Services Plan. If you’re in BC, even if you’re a visitor from another country; one, you can get tested and cared for for COVID, and two, you get access to vaccine. So yes, we hope that people will have a vaccine record that they’ll be able to bring with them if they come from another country, so that we know what vaccine they had. And I know one of the questions was about that, but I’ll get to that in a minute. But even if we don’t know what they received, they will have access to a series of vaccine here. So we are committed to that, at no cost for anybody, and making it available. Because it is as we keep saying, it protects not just an individual, but it protects all of us as people become immunized. I do recognize there are some vaccine products that are being used around the world that aren’t approved for use in Canada. But we do have a process of knowing how they work and what they are. And there is — our National Advisory Committee on Immunization provides advice on how to catch up or complete a series with the vaccine that’s not available here, and which vaccines can be interchangeably used. There’s a couple like Sputnik, which is a viral vector vaccine that we don’t have that particular viral vector vaccine, but we have other viral vector vaccines that can be used, and things like that. So as we have more information, I think it’s really — I use the term miraculous, and I’m not one who’s driven to hyperbole — but the fact that we have so many safe and effective vaccines globally, is really miraculous. And we are learning more and more about each of these vaccines. And they’ve been used on millions and millions of people in a very short period of time. So we do understand a lot more about the safety profiles, about their immunogenicity profiles, and we’re learning about how long they last and how well they work, and what’s the best optimal interval for the second dose for those that require a second dose, etc. So all of those things, we learn more and more every single day. And by September, we’ll know more than we do today. But we’ve already had people who come into the province who have had vaccines that are not the products, that aren’t available here in Canada, and we can catch them up with the vaccines that we have here.
Milovick: Okay, so you did a great job of pre-empting. My next question, so you’ve answered it. There was a question about Covaxin or Sputnik? I guess very generally, what preparations are you making for international students for a safe and accessible return to campus? Or maybe said another way, what preparations should post secondary institutions be making for international students for a safe and accessible return to campus?
Dr. Henry: Yeah, so that is actually something we’ve been working on with that federal government. So the federal government, of course, sets policy for our international borders, and who can come in and what the parameters are, etc. But we have had quite a number of international students who’ve returned to both K to 12, but also post secondary institutions around the province in the country over the last year, and there are provisions in place for allowing that. We have a working group that has been working with our regional representatives from the Canadian Border Services Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada, to make sure that we have the appropriate things in place.
So there’s a couple of things. One is being — is having a letter from the institution that the person is coming for that particular reason right now. We have restrictions on borders, related to central travel, and that there is a provision for international students who are coming for purposes of study, but it involves having a letter and involves having a plan. So far, that has been the requirement for quarantine, upon arrival. And I know a number of post secondary institutions have done that onsite. Currently, there’s the need for people to spend the three days and get tested in an approved hotel. We have supported some younger students in particular, to be able to safely quarantine with support from the institution in a residence, for example. And that’s happened and will continue to happen. So it will vary depending on what the international border policy is when we get to September. But I know, certainly for some of the health professions, this will happen sooner in the summer. So we will be some combination of that. And the provisions will be adjusted I believe, as we get more and more people immunized globally. So there will be — likely to be — issues around reduced periods of quarantine, different testing regimes for people who have been vaccinated and have proof of vaccine. And just pre-emptive, there’s another question about that, about the vaccine passports. This is something that our Federal Government and the special advisory committee that I chair right now, that we’ve been talking with other countries about, and it is likely that Canada will be part of a vaccine passport concept for international travel. So this may affect international students as well. And it’s, it’s similar to what we do right now for diseases like yellow fever, where you have to have proof of immunization to move from one country to another. So I think that’s likely to happen. We are not in favor of any sort of vaccine passports or restrictions on people being able to access certain services or to go to places or go to events or whatever, based on their immunization status within Canada and within BC. That’s something that, again that to me, speaks to equity and fairness and it is something that we’re not supportive of. And the ombudspeople put out a report on this, that we, I’ve worked quite closely with [unintelligible] on some of the principles, the key principles behind it about fairness and equity. So I think there will be an international vaccine passport at least in the short term, but not one within BC.
Dr. Gustafson: May I just add one quick point, and I think this is both for international students, but also students from coming out-of-province. So, in as much as secondary institutions or student bodies communicate with international students, among the many things that you do to prepare to come to campus, of course, if you can, get your vaccine. And if you have it, do bring your vaccine records, should you need a second dose. It makes it so much easier if people know what vaccine you got, and when you got it. And it’s really not so much specifically about COVID. But just in general, having access to your vaccine records at the ready, including your COVID vaccination is a really good thing. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve dealt with communicable disease control, and people trying to get mom to find vaccine records, and there’s a time change and they have to wake them up in the middle of the night to try and figure out where, when they got their measles shot. So that’s just as part of your regular preparation for leaving home and coming to a different campus in different provinces and different countries. Having a vaccine record with you is a really good idea.
Milovick: That’s great advice. Now we’re down to our last five minutes. I do want to ask a couple of questions about outbreaks. So I’m going to smush them together, and hopefully you can answer them. So I think the first part of the question is rhetorical: does it matter if students are vaccinated, what steps will be taken if there is a cluster of cases on campus, and will data regarding outbreaks in cases that occur in post green communities be available to the public?
Dr. Henry: So do you want to take tha, Réka?
Dr. Gustafson: So, I think that’s a great question. And really brings us to the fact that we’ve actually been managing outbreaks of a variety of diseases a long, and in campuses in the community, for many years. There’s actually — British Columbia has a really robust local public health system that detects response to outbreaks. And so what will happen over time, as COVID becomes a lot more like other communicable diseases, is that our outbreak management will be much more similar to other conditions. So for right now, with COVID, there’s a lot of reporting and every cluster is reported, and outbreak is reported. And that was, again in the aid of controlling an infection to which everybody was susceptible. And every cluster carried the potential of widespread transmission. As we transition — and I don’t quite know how long that transition will take — but as we transition, we will probably move to more similar outbreak measures as we had before, in which if there’s a cluster, you first inform the people who need to know because they may have been exposed. Should there be an outbreak where you can’t reach those individuals, you may need public reporting. And so it may take some time to transition to that, but but over the next few weeks to months — probably months — COVID-19 outbreak responses will transition to a routine outbreak management paradigm, which is really, has been in place for a very long time, and is just one of those that BC has a particularly robust system to do that.
Dr. Henry: And I’ll only add that one of the paramount important concepts that we have in Public Health and managing outbreaks is confidentiality of the people who are involved. Because that means you can trust us that you’re not going to be exposed to the world. And, and that is a principle that we have upheld throughout the pandemic, too. You know, there’s a great thirst for wanting to know exactly who’s infected with what, when. And we have been able to protect people’s confidentiality. And we’ve only released outbreak data when it’s, there’s been enough transmission in communities that somebody cannot be identified. So those principles will be adhered to. Absolutely. So if somebody is sick with this, they know that they can safely get tested, reported. That we’ll follow up and protect people’s confidentiality.
Milovick: That’s great. And thanks for the reminder of the consistency of approach. So given the time, unfortunately we have to bring the town hall to a close. On behalf of the post secondary sector, I’d like to thank Dr. Henry, Dr. Gustafson, Dr. Emerson and Dr. Ballem for spending the time with us this morning. I think I speak for all of us when I say how informative and helpful this morning’s dialogue has been. I’d also like to thank the Go Forward Guidelines steering committee, the Ministry of Advanced Education, and the Provincial Health Office for their hard work and continued support, not only on this town hall, but really through the last 15 months of the pandemic. In closing, just a reminder that this event has been recorded and we will be sharing the link with institutions imminently. So with that, once again, our thanks to all. Be well, get vaccinated as you’re able, and wish you all the best in your planning activities. Dr. Henry you have the last word
Dr. Henry: I just wanted to say, thank you very much again for this opportunity. I wish I could see you all, I wish I could hug you all. It has been a long, long storm that we’ve been through together and where I come from, we have a saying that “Common suffering builds strong bonds.” And I just hope that we can carry those strong bonds into this, this new challenge, this new post pandemic world. And remember to be kind to each other, and to remain calm, and that we will make it through. And really looking forward to getting back to some of those important social connections in our lives come the fall.
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