Vaughn Palmer: Will surgical strike of guidelines rescue area of B.C. mired in COVID misinformation?

Opinion: COVID-19 vaccination rates are climbing in B.C.'s northeast, albeit slowly.

Vaughn Palmer 5 minute read October 18, 2021

VICTORIA — When Dr. Bonnie Henry announced tough new restrictions to contain COVID-19 in the Northern Health region last week, she targeted some communities and let others off the hook.

The distinction “is directly related to the vaccination rates in the communities where people are living,” she explained. “Communities with lower rates of immunization have higher rates of spread. The illness and the risk for everybody goes up.”

Northern Health presents a “challenge” but one that is spread unevenly, with high vaccination rates in the northwest and much lower ones in the northeast.

The result was the guideline equivalent of a surgical strike.

“These changes will apply to the entire Northern Health region with the exception of the local health areas west of Kitwanga, including Terrace, Kitimat, Haida Gwaii, Prince Rupert, Stikine, Telegraph, Snow Country, and the Nisga’a area,” said Henry. “So those are areas where we have seen this virus not being able to spread because of those high rates of vaccination and people taking the precautions that we’ve asked.”

Back in the early days of the pandemic, when COVID infection rates were lower in some regions than others — Vancouver Island Health versus Vancouver Coast — or Northern Health vs. Fraser Health — Henry routinely rejected calls for patchwork regulation.

But those days are long gone, as Health Minister Adrian Dix noted recently. Since the fourth wave of the pandemic began building in August, specific guidelines have targeted the Central Okanagan, and later all of Interior Health, and the eastern part of Fraser Health.

Still, the circuit-breaker guidelines for the affected communities in Northern Health amount to the toughest this season, mandating everything from the closure of bars and lounges to moving religious ceremonies back online.

At a time when other parts of the province — and some communities in the north — are recording high vaccination rates, it raises questions about why northeastern B.C. lags so far behind.

One of the more persuasive explanations comes from Mike Bernier, B.C. Liberal MLA for South Peace River and one of the leaders in the vaccination drive in his community.

“I live in a part of the province where it’s very independent people, strong-willed people, blue-collar society in a sense,” Bernier told broadcaster Simi Sara on CKNW radio in Vancouver last week. “People just want to work hard, make some money, raise their family and enjoy a good quality of life.

“As a crow flies, I’m only about five miles from Alberta. People up here tend to gravitate more to Alberta for work, for their family,” he continued.

“And frankly, there is a massive distrust in my region for anything an NDP government might do or say. And with a Conservative government right next door, a lot of people were pointing at that and saying, ‘Well, let’s look at what they’re doing rather than here in B.C.’”

Not that Alberta is a poster child for avoiding the ravages of the pandemic, as Bernier readily concedes.

“Unfortunately, Alberta is in a similar situation now, where they’re being overrun in their hospitals and they’re needing to really ramp-up their message as well.”

To his credit, Bernier has been chipping away at vaccine hesitancy in his region, notwithstanding intransigence, misinformation, protests and even the occasional death threat.

“I strongly feel the more we hit this head-on, the more we talk to people and try to remind them what the facts are, we will get through to more people, maybe slowly, but surely,” says Bernier. “I sleep well at night knowing that I’m on the right side of this argument.”

I doubt there is a braver politician in B.C. at this point.

Bernier’s observations about vaccine hesitancy have been echoed by Andrew Kurjata, a CBC reporter based in Prince George.

“There are no simple, blanket statements that will encompass every reason for every person who is not vaccine-enthusiastic while not being an anti-vaxxer,” he acknowledged on social media recently. “But one thing that comes up again and again is a strong independent streak in the region. Sometimes this will be referred to as the Alberta influence but really it is the region’s own culture.”

Rightly or wrongly, “people in the region feel government does not have their best interests in mind,” says Kurjata. Likewise they find that major media groups rarely reflect the region and its priorities.

Not surprising, then, that they would be driven to alternative sources of news and information, including online sites trafficking in misinformation about COVID and vaccines.

Kurjata also reported on a Fort St. John pharmacist, Michael Ortynsky, who treats the hesitant with respect — often with positive results.

“They’re not anti-vaxxers, they’re just frightened,” says Ortynsky of the unvaccinated people who walk into his pharmacy with a slew of questions. “They have been getting a lot of half-truths and are very much misinformed about the reality of the vaccines and the pandemic.”

So he talks to them and sometimes it pays off with a decision to get vaccinated.

Like Bernier, he hopes that patience and reason will eventually persuade enough of his neighbours to get vaccinated.

Both the MLA and the reporter made the point that vaccination rates are climbing in the northeast, albeit slowly.

But it remains to be seen whether the combination of guidelines and persuasion can rescue a region still mired in the labyrinth of misinformation.