A plea for local COVID-19 leadership

LATE BREAKING NEWS: An exposure at Kwalikum Secondary School was announced by Island Health today, November 23, 2020. On November 17th, Superintendent Keven Elder (SD69-Qualicum) and Superintendent Scott Saywell (SD68-Nanaimo-Ladysmith) asked a series of questions of the Central Island Medical Health Officer, Dr. Sandra Allison. A video of their conversation about COVID-19 is available.

While more people in Qualicum Beach are wearing masks when out in public, including, to their credit, teens and young adults, many people are still not abiding by COVID-19 safety protocols. Shall we say it? — people who should know better.

Finally, on November 19, 2020, Dr. Bonnie Henry issued the long-awaited, long-needed, and long-expected order making “masks mandatory in all indoor public spaces.” Problem solved, right? Wrong – there’s the no small matter of compliance.

Recall that on October 26, 2020, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry had said, “it is now the expectation that people will wear a non-medical mask in all public spaces.” At that time, Dr. Henry had another piece of advice about masks. “We should have one with us all the time, so we can wear [it] when needed,” she said, even outdoors when a person can’t rely on maintaining a safe physical distance from other people who don’t reside in their household.

Yet, a photo proudly displayed on the Town of Qualicum Beach’s Facebook page shows 11 Qualicum Beach Pipe Band members gathered at the Remembrance Day ceremony on November 11 — standing shoulder-to-shoulder, and not a single person wearing a mask.

Will QB Remembrance Day ceremonies be QB’s super-spreader event?

Two days later, on Friday, November 13, the Qualicum Beach Legion issued a letter to its members stating “a member” of the Qualicum Beach Legion had tested positive for COVID-19 and that other people may have been infected if they attended the Legion on November 7 and 8. The QB Legion is now closed until Island Health gives the green light to re-open.

Unofficial reports suggest there may already be more than one confirmed case of COVID-19 arising from the QB Legion exposure, specifically that a patron apparently attended the Legion while ill and that a staff member subsequently became infected. What is apparently still unknown or undisclosed is where or from whom the infected Legion member contracted COVID-19. The illness doesn’t occur spontaneously; it has to be transmitted from a source.

Local resident Michael Jessen reported that on November 6 he and his wife went into the QB Legion lounge for a drink in the mid-afternoon. “The lower hall was empty when we sat down and totally full by the time we left about 45 minutes later. To tell you the truth I was a little worried about the way they were handling the numbers of people.”

A week after Remembrance Day, on November 18 another COVID-19 case and risk of exposure was confirmed in Qualicum Beach, this time at Dolly’s Hardware. The hardware store temporarily closed, but had already decided to insist that all customers wear a mask when it reopens.

Difficulty getting information from officials

Why the resistance to mask wearing when people’s lives are at risk? Many reasons, but one stands out, especially here in BC. So far, unlike other jurisdictions around Canada and the world, Dr. Henry and the BC Health Ministry have refused to provide British Columbians with specific information regarding where confirmed cases exist. Therefore, many people just assumed the virus isn’t here in Qualicum Beach because no one has said so — until now. Henry’s lack of transparency leads to complacency, which encourages cavalier behaviour that can quickly result in fatalities.

Emergency Management Oceanside is supposed to inform the citizens of QB about the coronavirus pandemic locally. The group serves Parksville as well. Yet, as of the date this article was written, neither the Town of Qualicum Beach nor the Emergency Management Oceanside websites or Facebook pages have made any mention whatsoever that a confirmed COVID-19 case(s) and risk of possible exposure had occurred at the Qualicum Beach Legion on November 7 and 8.

The October 29 What’s New bulletin from Emergency Management Oceanside (EMO) reported on Dr. Henry’s October 26 public briefing. The EMO bulletin states in part, “For the coming winter months, Dr Hendry [sic] suggested we should focus on our immediate family and consider having social connections with others in a safe way.”

Local retailer’s sign posted
prior to Dr. Bonnie Henry’s mask mandate

Despite the fact that the EMO What’s New bulletin reported Dr. Henry specifically noting that “people should now wear masks in all indoor public spaces,” the EMO bulletin listed “Wear a mask in public spaces” next to last in their list of eight COVID-19 safety protocols, well after “Cover your cough or sneeze,” and just before “Be kind.” That was not the message conveyed in Dr. Henry’s October 26 briefing, about which the EMO was reporting.

We then checked with the BC Centre for Disease Control (BC CDC). The BC CDC refers people seeking information about confirmed COVID-19 cases to their health authority. But Island Health was no help either. Only two cases of “outbreaks and exposures” were listed in the “outbreaks and exposure” section of Island Health’s website — the outbreak discovered on November 11 at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, and the “possible exposure” in Courtenay at Browns Socialhouse on November 3 and 5.

Island Health’s website made no mention at all of the possible exposure to a confirmed case at the Tofino Brewing Company on October 27, nor the possible exposure to a confirmed case at the Qualicum Beach Legion on November 7 and 8, nor the more recent confirmed COVID-19 case and risk of exposure at Dolly’s Hardware. To date, none of these cases and incidents are listed on Island Health’s list of confirmed cases and possible exposures. Frankly, Island Health’s incomplete information, which presents a false picture, is less useful than no information at all.

So, it appears we have a growing number of confirmed cases right here in QB and in mid-Island communities surrounding us, but very little official information is being made available to the public. Reported cases in BC are now doubling every 13 days (as of this past week). The only hospital designated to treat severe COVID-19 cases on the northern half of Vancouver Island (including QB) is the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, itself the site of a confirmed outbreak of COVID-19 infected staff.

An opportunity for our business community and local government to show leadership at the local level

We all have a duty as individuals to act responsibly during this pandemic — but local government and businesses can also play an important leadership role.

What has Qualicum Beach Town and Council been doing to ensure that our community does not suffer unnecessary illness, deaths or financial collapse because of neglect or indifference during the coronavirus pandemic? Nothing, apparently. Instead, Town staff have been busy stringing Christmas lights, ensuring fire hydrants will be painted to resemble Disneyesque characters, purportedly to attract tourists, and urging citizens to donate money to help a Parksville community group buy property. The drive to save West Ballenas Island from development, while a worthy one, is not a QB matter, and it’s certainly not a priority during the pandemic. Yet the Town issued splashy communications to the public, urging them to donate to that cause.

The mid-Island has the largest number of active cases (85) within the Island Health region right now, with 31 in the south Island and 12 in the north Island. It’s time to focus.

The Town of Qualicum Beach has just received an unplanned windfall of $2,359,000 under the COVID-19 Safe Restart Program.

Perhaps the Town and Council could instead provide some leadership to and oversight of the Emergency Management group, to require that the EMO produce more timely, accurate and relevant local bulletins about COVID-19 in Qualicum Beach? Or the Town could ensure that our bylaw officer attends public events like the Remembrance Day ceremonies, or checks out places like the Legion when customers crowded into that establishment, as was to be expected?

Businesses are another essential component of our lives in QB. As of November 20, 2020, mask wearing is now mandatory in every BC business that serves the public, says Dr. Bonnie Henry. But she has provided no specifics about how her order is to be enforced. In a CBC radio interview, when asked a direct question about enforcement, BC Health Minister Adrian Dix mumbled a few words about the Emergency Program Act then changed the subject. We cannot wait for legislated changes – thanks to the unscheduled disruption of the recent provincial election, our legislature isn’t even in session.

As retailers, we are on our own. The same people who last week wandered into our shops without masks, either from absent-minded indifference or in defiance, are not, when asked politely, all suddenly going to become thoughtful, considerate, compliant mask-wearers. It is not fair to ask minimum wage retail staffers to enforce a no-mask-no-service rule on their own — especially given the inconsiderate and belligerent response from too many patrons (you know who you are).

Eat, drink and be safe

Eateries and drinking establishments are particularly risky given the fact that masks can’t be worn by people while consuming food and beverages, combined with the length of time customers spend inside an establishment.  

“The longer you spend time unmasked in an enclosed space, the higher the risk of contracting the virus,” says Dr. Russell G. Buhr, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Health, in a Vox Media article about restaurant safety. It’s for that reason that masks have already been mandated on BC Ferries and BC Transit.

But rather than avoiding the pleasure and convenience of dining out, we can all provide leadership by setting an example. “Diners have a responsibility to follow every possible safety precaution if they choose to eat indoors acknowledging the risk not just to themselves,” says Dr. Buhr, “but to all of the workers who make their food, serve them, and clean their dishes. That means staying home if sick, and wearing a mask for as much of the dining experience as possible. It means being gracious and understanding if reminded to put on a mask as a waiter approaches.”

Proactive strategies needed

We can’t wait for Dr. Henry to figure out how to enforce mask wearing and other restrictions such as public gatherings. [See story Mass gathering of 150 people in Coombs on November 17, reported by Nanaimo News NOW.]

Sign in window of Qualicum Beach retail outlet prior to announcement of mask mandate on November 20, 2020

Qualicum Beach could distinguish itself as a very safe place to shop and dine during the pandemic if the Town and the business community collectively and collaboratively mandated and ENFORCED mask wearing in ALL commercial venues — by staff and by customers alike. This would not only keep QB residents safer, but it would help protect our local economy from collapse.

The Town of Qualicum Beach has just received an unplanned windfall of $2,359,000 under the COVID-19 Safe Restart Program. Here’s a minimal suggested action plan:

  • Enforce our own Town-wide no-mask-no-service directive in all businesses and commercial establishments (with exceptions for indoor dining, only while seated);
  • Recruit at least three currently unemployed people to enforce this directive and other COVID-19 directives (e.g. safe-distancing and limits on public gatherings), compensated from the Safe Restart Grant money; and
  • Inform the public with timely, comprehensive and specific bulletins to all citizens as soon as COVID-19 cases and exposures are identified in Qualicum Beach by Island Health. Include mail drops, prominent signage around QB, and public service announcements on radio to ensure all people receive these messages, not just email and social media users.

We could add to this list, “publicize the photos and names of all non-compliant patrons or staff,” but we hope it doesn’t have to come to that.

Update: Finally. Late in the afternoon of Friday, November 20, the Town of Qualicum Beach issued a news release that included an Emergency Management Oceanside news release that more accurately reflected the orders and restrictions suggested by Dr. Bonnie Henry. Oddly, the Town’s email subject heading gave second billing to COVID-19: Subject: News Release – Adam Walker Elected as MLA, and COVID-19 Updates from EMO, and the EMO update was placed at the end of the email.

We really need to get our priorities straight.