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Opinion: End of COVID-19 briefings marks major pandemic milestone

One of B.C.’s most popular television programs has finally gone off the air and that is a sign the COVID-19 pandemic may finally be in the rear-view mirror.
Bonnie Henry
Dr. Bonnie Henry provided regular live updates on COVID-19 in B.C. Screenshot

One of B.C.’s most popular television programs has finally gone off the air and that is a sign the COVID-19 pandemic may finally be in the rear-view mirror.

I am referring to the regularly scheduled briefings by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix. They started back in February 2020 and for the longest time they gripped an information-starved public.

At first, the briefings were fascinating, tense and almost dramatic. As the pandemic began to alter society, the briefings increased in frequency and eventually they were held six days a week. They were eventually reduced to three and then two days a week.

Daily case numbers, deaths, hospitalizations, ICU patients, changing science related to COVID-19, changing public health protocols, models of changing behaviour patterns – all were the focus of the relentless briefings.

At first, reporters were in the room (the legislature press theatre) with both Henry and Dix, and the briefings sometimes ran 90 minutes. By late March, public health safety protocols meant reporters asked questions over the phone.

Media interest in these events was phenomenal. In March and April of 2020, there were often more than 100 reporters on the phone line. Moreover, these were not just B.C. reporters, but included correspondents from around the world.

Henry herself became a major media figure. The New York Times published a glowing report of her performance early in the pandemic and she continues to enjoy a considerable depth of public support. The latest polls showed she continues to track more than 70% approval.

Reporting on the briefings was like being in a fishbowl. Both the questions and the answers would be analyzed (or mocked or approved) on social media.

By my calculation, about 3,000 questions were asked by reporters during this show’s run. That is a heck of a lot of questions about essentially one topic. I asked many of them; there were 210 briefings and I covered every single one of them.

Nevertheless, all good things must end. After peaking in case numbers and hospitalizations in early April, our COVID-19 numbers have steadily dropped as our vaccination rate climbed quickly.

When it was apparent, near the beginning of the pandemic, that the briefings had become something of a phenomenon with an almost cult-like following, I wrote in this space way back in March 2020 that as popular as they were, we should be wishing an end to them as soon as possible.

“I hope this new show does not run for much longer,” I wrote. “When it disappears from the airwaves, it will be a sign that we have finally flattened the curve.”

It took a while (well, 15 months anyways) but we have reached that point where the briefings are no longer really needed. The information that formed the core subjects of the briefings will continue to flow, but without the show’s two stars in attendance.

Of course, the show may well return if the Delta variant somehow takes hold as it has in some other jurisdictions. However, our high vaccination rate, particularly in the younger age groups that have the highest infection rates, makes that scenario somewhat doubtful.

So it appears to be the end of an era. And it is ending for all the right reasons.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.