More than a month ago, two executives of the UBC Alma Mater Society released a letter with two straightforward demands.
“The student union, representing all 56,000+ undergraduate and graduate students, strongly believes that the University must do more than the bare minimum to ensure that we have a safe return to campus and that students feel comfortable attending UBC,” student president Cole Evans and student vice president of academic and university affairs Eshana Bhangu wrote on July 23.
“The Alma Mater Society calls on the administration and the Board of Governors to address the concerns brought forth by the community through clear and comprehensive communication, mandating masks in lecture halls, and requiring vaccinations in student residences at UBC.”
In an August 23 morning interview with the Straight—before the B.C. government announced plans for a vaccine card and a provincewide mask mandate in public indoor settings—Evans and Bhangu reiterated their position.
“Our ask has been the same since Day 1,” Bhangu said. “We’ve been asking for required vaccines in student residences and mandated masks in indoor spaces such as lecture halls and classrooms.”
Evans added that an AMS survey of its members demonstrated this desire.
“There’s very broad support,” Evans said, “and I think that even beyond the student population, we’ve seen lots of support for increased measures from faculty and staff as well.”
SFU staff union also raised concerns
Nearly two weeks after the AMS letter was released, SFU’s Teaching Support Staff Union issued its own public letter. It declared that the province’s return-to-campus COVID-19 guidelines issued on July 5 were “not consistent with the best available evidence”.
Moreover, the TSSU claimed that they “do not follow the precautionary principle, and disregard key aspects of the Heirarchy of Controls that could prevent COVID-19 exposure and subsequent transmission in post-secondary environments”.
The TSSU, which represents about 3,000 workers at SFU, also claimed that the provincial guidelines failed to “acknowledge aerosol transmission and implement measures to prevent aerosol transmission in indoor settings”.
“If proof of vaccination were mandated for return to campus, it would provide much greater certainty and reduce infection risk on campus,” the TSSU insisted in its letter. “Many US post-secondary institutions are requiring proof of full vaccination for return to campus and Seneca College in Ontario has implemented a similar policy.”
The TSSU letter, which was signed by several other unions and student groups, acknowledged a caveat from B.C.’s human rights commissioner: a proof-of-vaccination requirement can only be imposed if other, less intrusive, means of preventing COVID-19 transmission are inadequate and if due consideration is given to people’s human rights.
“We have been told that requesting such proof is contrary to BC privacy laws and cannot be required, and this discrepancy in guidance is alarming,” the TSSU stated. “The lack of public health measures (e.g., masking, ventilation improvements, physical distancing, reduced class sizes) without any measurement of vaccination rates on campus is concerning and invites preventable risk.”
Province makes big announcement
On August 24, both of the AMS’s demands were granted by the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang: as of August 25, masks would be required in all indoor public spaces across the province in response to higher COVID-19 case numbers as a result of the highly contagious Delta variant.
But the TSSU’s point about implementing more stringent measures to prevent aerosol transmission of COVID-19 in indoor settings was not addressed to the union’s satisfaction.
According to the B.C. government, mandatory vaccination would only apply to students living in residence or engaged in certain activities on campus.
“For campus life, the new provincial proof of vaccination requirement announced yesterday means people must be vaccinated in order to live in student housing, to go to a pub, to go to a gym—including varsity students—[and] to attend an indoor club meeting, like joining a choir,” Kang told reporters. “And, of course, that same proof of vaccination will also be required for activities that can be a big part of student life, like indoor concerts and attending sports events.”
Then Kang went further, declaring that “colleges and universities may choose to adopt their own vaccine policies or ask for proof for vaccination”, which went beyond the provincial health order.
But later in the same news conference, Henry offered a slightly different take on this aspect of the announcement.
“I will say that we know that the in-classroom setting is not the risky setting,” Henry stated. “And it’s incredibly important that we don’t put barriers in place to people receiving education—and that includes postsecondary education. So it is a balancing [act] that we have had of where the risk is. And the risk really is in communal-living settings that we have seen transmission, particularly of COVID, and that’s why we’re focusing on…the importance of immunization in those settings.”
All things considered, it can be deemed a full victory for UBC’s AMS and only a partial victory for the TSSU.
The AMS’s Bhangu told the Straight that some students had sent emails to the student association saying they were prepared to take the semester off had there been no mask mandate in classrooms. But she added that some international students were worried about the consequences of mandatory vaccinations for everyone who attends classes on campus.
According to Bhangu, these students could face discrimination and be racialized because others on campus might not know their country of origin and question how credible their vaccinations might have been.
“That is why we’ve been asking for a mask mandate: to have one policy in classrooms and lecture halls to protect everyone and also to prevent the sort of xenophobic cases that we might see arise in classrooms,” she said.
Some want mandatory vaccinations on campus
After the province’s news conference, TSSU chief steward Katie Gravestock told the Straight by phone that the announcement didn’t go far enough, given the thousands of people who will be walking through hallways and hundreds in some lecture halls.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me why proof of vaccination isn’t being applied to all postsecondary settings,” Gravestock said. “It doesn’t make sense why classrooms and labs aren’t included. I don’t think masks are enough to protect students.”
Gravestock also emphasized that she strongly disagrees with Henry’s insistence that classrooms are low-risk settings.
According to Gravestock, Henry’s position is rooted in evidence from kindergarten-to–Grade 12 classes before the Delta variant exploded across Canada.
“Also, from my understanding, almost all classes at postsecondary institutions were moved to remote learning since March 2020,” Gravestock added. “So we really don’t have any evidence from classroom settings in postsecondary institutions.”
Henry and Kang made no mention of ventilation in connection with postsecondary institutions, which was the first demand in the TSSU letter.
They also made no mention of maintaining minimum two-metre physical distancing in classrooms, which was another TSSU demand.
Nevertheless, Gravestock believes that the TSSU’s public letter, which was signed by more than 800 people, had an impact.
“We sent the letter actually twice to the minister of advanced education: once when we first released it on August 5 and again yesterday,” Gravestock said. “So I’m really glad to see that there’s now a mask mandate in place for indoor settings.”
Grad student focuses on airborne transmission
Andrew Longhurst, a geographer and health-policy researcher studying for a PhD at SFU, also agreed that pressure from students, staff, and faculty pushed the provincial government to impose stronger measures. But Longhurst also doesn’t believe that they go far enough.
“It’s unfortunate because we’re two weeks from school starting and a lot of this could have been resolved much sooner,” Longhurst told the Straight by phone.
One of Longhurst’s biggest concerns is that the province is not doing anywhere near enough to educate the public about how COVID-19 is an airborne disease and why that should entail much more robust discussion about the impact of different masks.
“I think it is fundamentally their belief that it is not an airborne virus and that’s very alarming at this stage of the pandemic, 18 months in,” Longhurst said. “Key decision makers are not taking that evidence in. They’re resistant to it. Because we’re not going to get out of this with that kind of view.”
Longhurst echoed Gravestock's concern about the Henry quote regarding classrooms not being a risky setting for transmission.
"An airborne virus doesn't take a break when you're in a classroom," he insisted. "We should be talking about higher-efficiency masks that protect you from aerosols rather than cloth masks and homemade masks that are not particularly effective when faced with the highly infectious Delta."
Several hours before deadline, the Straight directed this question to the Ministry of Health: “Recent research at the University of Waterloo shows that N95 and KN95 masks block exhaled aerosol transmissions at far higher rates than surgical masks and cloth masks. Why aren’t public health officials talking much more in briefings like this about the quality of masks to protect people from contracting airborne COVID-19?”
As of this writing, the Straight has not received a response.
The role of public health
UVic nursing professor Damien Contrandriopoulos is another British Columbian who's been highly critical of the B.C. government's approach to the question of aerosol transmission of COVID-19.
In a paper entitled "The year public health lost its soul", Contandriopoulos claimed that public health entered a "Faustian bargain with governments and realpolitik that threaten the very core of the discipline's principles".
"Most jurisdictions in Western countries adopted 'balanced-containment' strategies regarding COVID," he wrote. "This approach is characterized by the ambition to balance, on the one hand, the number of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths and, on the other hand, the economic and social disruptions caused by strict infection control measures such as lockdowns (Oliu-Barton et al., 2021).
"The balanced-containment approach is different from the COVID-zero or elimination approach adopted by New Zealand, China, Singapore and others," he added. "It is also different from the necrophiliac laissez-faire tried in Brazil and some US states."
By early 2021, Contandriopoulos wrote, "the scientific consensus was that most COVID cases were caused by aerosol transmission (Allen & Ibrahim, 2021; Tang et al., 2021)".
"However, it also soon became clear that most Western state-run public health bureaucracies—as well as international public health bodies such as the WHO—actively defended erroneous initial theories on COVID transmission long after it was rational to do so," he continued. "Instead of working toward the development and communication of evidence-based COVID prevention strategies, public health institutions found themselves stonewalling and actively contradicting scientific developments in the field (Greenhalgh et al., 2021)."
The strategy came to be known as "ICU chicken", he noted, with "balanced containment strategies" being shifted from minimizing the number of cases to optimizing intensive-care bed-occupancy rates. And that turned out to be deeply inequitable, according to Contandriopoulos, violating a fundamental principle of public health.
This is at the crux of many of Longhurst's concerns. But he has been pleased by the work of BC COVID-19 Modelling Group, which blew the whistle on August 18 on the future impact of the Delta variant in B.C.
Previously, Henry expressed a belief that the number of cases could be decoupled from the number of hospitalizations if enough people were vaccinated. But the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group's work indicated that there will likely still be serious challenges to the health-care system as a result of the Delta variant.
It's a message that Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix will have to take into consideration.
"The pressures that we’re seeing mounting across the system can’t be ignored," Longhurst said. "For health authorities that’s a very very real thing. And they’re going to be hearing from the health authorities about capacity challenges and staffing challenges."
As a result, he believes that provincial health officials have had to rethink their strategy to contain the spread of the virus.
"It’s not been explicitly stated, but I do think with the announcements today [August 24], there is an awareness—at least behind the scenes—that it’s going to take more than vaccinations," Longhurst said.