While public health officials are warning of a triple virus impact this winter comprised of COVID, influenza and the respiratory illness RSV, British Columbians are better prepared to deal with what lies ahead, says the medical health officer for Interior Health.
Dr. Silvina Mema echoed the policy direction voiced by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry at a press conference on Wednesday, saying the rationale for mask or vaccine mandates is not yet necessary.
“It has been a year since last winter and we’ve since seen a significant increase in vaccinations among children and adults over that time which has helped both build up our immunity to widespread infections and also reduce the severity of being sick when we do get these virus infections,” Mema said in an interview with Black Press Media.
Having experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, Mema said people are individually more vigilant in using the tools at their disposal - following proper hygiene, not going to work or public places when sick, and staying more isolated in general - to help protect both themselves and others.
So the onus, for now, is to place that trust in individuals to act responsibly rather than rely on the heavy hand of government to impose public mandates, and not open up the often polarizing debate that has gone on around mandatory vaccination and face-mask-wearing initiatives
Wearing a face mask, Mema says, is a measure an individual should consider when thinking about both reducing the risk of passing on a virus or catching it from someone else in a crowded place like a shopping mall or grocery store.
“It is not warranted to have a mandate at this point but wearing a mask is something people should consider if they have a medical condition, are over the age of 60 or have small children at home not yet vaccinated, to reduce the risk of going to a public gathering,” she said.
Mema explains that practicing personal hygiene in and outside of the home is one of those tools, often overlooked, that are critical help in preventing the spread of virus germs, which she says is now referred to as ‘respiratory etiquette.’
Some of those basic etiquette principles include turning away from others when coughing or sneezing, covering your nose and/or mouth with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing, and washing your hands.
But she says vaccines, both COVID and influenza, remain the public health community’s best weapon to fight off virus pandemics.
“That is the most important thing since before COVID is how many people have received vaccinations,” she said.
“It is very important to keep up with your vaccines to protect you from getting a virus, and if you do get a milder version. We ran out of flu vaccine for a time earlier this fall and that is a good thing because it means people are getting their flu shots.”
The concerns in Eastern Canada about virus outbreaks, which have revived calls there for mask mandates, is a scenario that health officials in B.C. are watching closely.
“There are different reasons why that is happening there and not here, but if it starts in that part of the country we can expect it will come in our direction as the winter progresses. As with any virus outbreak, it has to start somewhere before it spreads elsewhere,” said Mema.
As Henry also indicated, the vaccination mandate for health care system workers has remained in place because of having to deal with patients in hospitals and seniors in care facilities who are virus compromised.