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B.C health officials downplaying airborne transmission of virus, says advocacy group

Protect Our Province says the 'droplet dogma' impacts policies.
Adrian Dix with Bonnie Henry fuzzed
Health Minister Adrian Dix speaks to media.

B.C. health officials are failing to acknowledge the airborne nature of the virus that causes COVID-19, thus jeopardizing an adequate response to the ongoing pandemic, claims a group of advocates called Protect Our Province (POP).

The group, comprising of about a dozen medical doctors, academic researchers and health policy advocates, has highlighted a recent flurry of incidents whereby officials reportedly downplay airborne transmission, which is when the virus is carried by small aerosol particles suspended in air.

In one instance pointed out by POP, on Feb. 10, B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau asked Health Minister Adrian Dix if he agrees with the World Health Organization (WHO) that COVID-19 is airborne.

Dix responded not by explicitly acknowledging such transmission but rather by claiming provincial health officer “Dr. [Bonnie] Henry, our public health teams and the Ministry of Health have consistently advised people that outdoors is safer than indoors, that we need to take specific action to ensure that people are protected indoors.”

Furstenau responded, calling it “strange” that Dix couldn’t explicitly acknowledge the transmission path.

“It matters because the policies and protections that the minister speaks of are moved by this recognition of it being an airborne virus. N95 masks, standards for ventilation, air filtration and measuring air quality indoors are appropriate responses to an airborne virus,” said Furstenau.

Globally, acknowledging airborne spread has evolved from the outset of the pandemic in January 2020 when the WHO stated it was not airborne. It was May 2021 that Forbes reported the agency finally acknowledging the mode of transmission.

It’s unclear why Dix did not acknowledge airborne spread. Asked explicitly if the virus is airborne, Dix's ministry stated Henry has previously acknowledged "the different ways COVID-19 can be transmitted, including through larger droplets and through aerosols."

The ministry did not use the term "airborne."

Last December, Henry also did not say explicitly the virus is or can be airborne but she did allude to aerosols being a factor with the Omicron variant.

On Feb. 10, Vancouver Coastal Health Medical Health Officer Patricia Daly stressed close proximity, thus not necessarily sharing airspace, as the key to transmission. Daly said this virus is not like the measles virus that lingers in the air for hours.

On Feb. 8, BC Children’s Hospital tweeted: “Evidence from over 50 million cases worldwide suggests that COVID-19 is primarily spread by droplet and contact transmission.”

In response, group advisor and epidemiologist David Fisman of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, said he reported the tweet as misinformation.

When asked by Glacier Media to show the supporting evidence, the hospital deferred inquiries to the ministry.

It was five days before on Feb. 5 that BC Children’s Hospital doctors Alison Lopez and Jocelyn Srigley wrote a short letter to The Lancet academic journal stating “the epidemiology and scientific literature do not support airborne spread as the predominant mode of transmission.”

In response to an article that argued aerosol transmission is the predominant mode, as demonstrated by asymptomatic spread and “super-spreader” events, Lopez and Srigley (who declared grants from WorkSafeBC, which regulates workplace safety) said the science is still unsettled. Among their claims is that mitigation efforts against droplet transmission have largely stopped the virus in its tracks.

Nevertheless, Protect Our Province called on senior health officials to acknowledge the airborne pathogen.

“In fact, the science is very clear. B.C. has had two years to get this correct. There are few, if any, credible studies which claim large viral droplets are the main route of infection for SARS-CoV-2,” wrote the group, adding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists aerosols as the first of three modes of transmission:

“Exposure occurs in three principal ways: (1) inhalation of very fine respiratory droplets and aerosol particles, (2) deposition of respiratory droplets and particles on exposed mucous membranes in the mouth, nose, or eye by direct splashes and sprays, and (3) touching mucous membranes with hands that have been soiled.” 

The group also cited the Public Health Agency of Canada, which stated Nov. 12, 2021: “We have learned how the virus can linger in fine aerosols and remain suspended in the air we breathe, much as expelled smoke lingers in poorly ventilated spaces. Similar to second-hand smoke, those in close proximity to the infected person inhale more aerosols.”

The agency’s top doctor Theresa Tam is also on record stating a respirator is the best mask and cloth masks are ineffective, especially with the Omicron variant.

POP says B.C. health officials are contradicting themselves by downplaying aerosol spread yet at the same time suggesting people keep indoor spaces well ventilated.

“Why advocate for opening windows if transmission is through droplets and contact spread?

“Why make any distinction between singing and talking if all that is needed is two metres distance for the droplets to fall?” asks the group on its website. “How do you explain viral particles defying gravity and landing in air ducts?” 

POP says the “droplet dogma” being advocated from the top of the bureaucracy impacts policies.

“The sooner B.C. public health accepts the evidence that COVID-19 is spread through aerosols, the safer B.C. residents will be, and the better our provincial pandemic management will become by finally cleaning the air we all share.”

It was this month that the B.C. government announced funding for air purifiers in school classrooms. Until now, school boards have been barring teachers and parents from supplying air purifiers of their own.

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