‘People are quite distressed’: COVID communications causing confusion in B.C.

‘People are quite distressed’: COVID communications causing confusion in B.C.

Health officials in B.C. apologized twice last week for confusing communications around changing COVID protocols, but experts say there is still some confusion about the recent changes.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer offered the first apology on Tuesday, after her office put up public health orders without communicating the change to the province.

The public health orders extended the gym closures indefinitely, which was updated in the same briefing.

I would like to apologize for the confusion on the order timing and the adjustments that were required yesterday. The intent was to have the orders in place until I could provide clear direction on orders at today’s briefing,” Henry said on Jan. 18.

On Wednesday, there were multiple changes to the self-isolation guidelines on the BC Centre for Disease Control website, which led to the second apology.

“We apologize for the web posting and changes that occurred yesterday. We understand the significant interest in these testing and isolation guidelines, which is why we updated the website immediately with clarifications made yesterday. We recognize this approach led to confusion,” the BCCDC said in a statement on its website.

Communication confusion

Heidi Tworek, Canada Research Chair in History and Policy of Health Communications and associate professor at University of British Columbia, says despite efforts to clear up some of the confusion, many in the province are still confused.

“We’ve seen a lot of confusion, both in terms of what has been put out there which has led obviously to apologies by Bonnie Henry for that level of confusion,” Tworek said. “We’ve also seen a lot of people within B.C. genuinely struggling to understand why things are changing in the ways that they are.”

That sentiment is echoed by Sonia Furstenau, BC Green Party leader.

“Many people feel a sense of confusion, a sense of not really understanding how decisions are being made and how communication strategies are being worked out,” Furstenau said in an interview with CHEK.

“When you look at the difference between different press conferences, when at one point, Dr. Henry’s saying Omicron is mild, and then at another point, she’s saying it’s not mild, and then she’s saying we shouldn’t say it’s mild, but then she says it’s mild. This is very confusing for the public.”

On Jan. 18, Henry said in a news conference that the Omicron variant does not necessarily cause milder illness, despite what many believe.

“I want to speak for a moment about some of the misinformation that is spreading. I think there’s a narrative around right now that Omicron is mild. We need to be very careful to dismiss this right now. And even those people who aren’t in hospital this is not an innocuous illness or Omicron can and is still causing serious illness in many,” Henry said on Jan. 18.

In previous news conferences, Henry made statements that said the Omicron variant was causing milder illness in most people.

Vulnerable people feeling left behind

Tworek says in the new guidelines, there are many vulnerable people who feel their needs aren’t being met or acknowledged.

“We’ve seen a huge number of people who feel abandoned by these changes in guidelines and feel that their concerns are not being spoken to and that questions are not being answered,” Tworek said. 

“Those who are clinically extremely vulnerable or disabled, or many of the people who have children under the age of five who are not yet eligible for vaccination to just give a couple of examples of groups of people who may feel at this point that they’ve been abandoned by changes in guidelines and have a lot of questions about why they’re changing the way that they are.”

Tom Jackman, an extremely clinically vulnerable person who has been sharing compilations of Henry’s statements on Twitter throughout the pandemic, says what Tworek says resonates with his experience.

“Our category of people kind of just get ignored in all this, so when the province has spent two years trying to actively control a pandemic,” Jackman said. “And then the last two weeks, it seems like we’re not really doing that anymore. The goal isn’t to control the pandemic. It’s simply to manage hospital capacity, and that, especially to people like me, has been very depressing.”

He says since he’s started posting his compilations on Twitter, people have reached out to him for support.

“People are scared, particularly teachers and frontline workers,” Jackman says. “It’s jarring when medical professionals reach out to me essentially just for emotional support, because they’re at their wit’s end.”

More transparency needed

Furstenau says people are reaching out to her office and are overwhelmed by the situation.

“People are quite distressed. And I think that, rightly so. To indicate to the public that we’re moving to a self management of this pandemic, but then to not provide the clear education,” Furstenau said. “I think that the level of complexity and confusion around these guidelines is an indication that you don’t really know what is trying to be achieved anymore.”

Furstenau said she would like to see an increase in transparency from the government. Both in terms of data, but also what is informing the decision making.

“I think we need an independent science table in British Columbia to provide to the public a range of communication approaches that ensure that people aren’t left with this level of confusion at a time when we are all exhausted from more than two years of dealing with this pandemic,” Furstenau said.

Tworek said some measures that could be implemented to help clear up confusion would be providing information in a way that is easily understood.

She says when the new public health orders were implemented on Monday, part of the confusion was that the documents were around 20 pages long, which is difficult for most people to understand. She recommends that for situations like this, a short document which explains the changes in an easily digestible way would help mitigate confusion.

Another measure Tworek recommended is a phone line that people can contact if they have questions about the new measures.

Learning from history

Tworek says her studies about communications in historical pandemics have shown there are some similarities in communications from previous pandemics.

“That can include thinking a pandemic is over before it is, confusing communication, disputes around who should still be protected versus not, not understanding pandemics as global. [These] certainly apply to, not solely B.C., but a whole host of other places too.”

She says one thing that jurisdictions that are doing well in their COVID response have in common is that they have paid attention to lessons from previous pandemic.

“So New Zealand, for example, had a pandemic preparedness plan that explicitly thanked a historian of the 1918 flu pandemic, for really helping them in thinking about their pandemic communications, because that was a key thing that the historian identified as lacking in the flu pandemic a century ago,” Tworek said.

“And similarly, South Korea and Taiwan learned from much more recent epidemics. The MERS outbreak in South Korea in 2015 and the original SARS in Taiwan in the early 2000s.”

Laura BroughamLaura Brougham

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