Opinion: conflicting communication confusing public health adherence

Residents want to do their part. The problem is they no longer know what that means

Herald File Photo.
Peter Lozinski is the editor of the Prince Albert Daily Herald.

Do you know what’s happening anymore? Because I don’t.

That’s a heck of a statement for a newspaper editor to make.

My job is to report the facts and give people the information they need to know. But these days, that’s getting harder and harder when the official word is changing by the minute.

Maybe it’s COVID overload, but the more I hear from the province, the more confused I get.

Take the current public health measures, for one. You can only gather in private residences with your own household.

People I know are trying to follow the order, but have questions.

 Is that just inside? Or can you have a neighbour over for a fire in your big backyard where you stay more than two metres apart and only touch your own food?

Why can we meet at a restaurant and sit together at a table, but not in our dining room?

(For the record, currently, outdoor gatherings can have up to ten people so long as distancing is maintained between households, but all private indoor gatherings can only have one household. That means you can’t gather with other households in your home, but could gather with up to ten people outside)

People talk to me a lot. They talk to me at a distance if they recognize me at the grocery store. They message me online in group chats or talk to me on the phone. They keep asking me what’s allowed and what’s not. These are smart people. They have tried to do what they can. They follow the news and sometimes even watch the press conferences themselves. They wash their hands, wear a mask and go out as little as possible.

But even they don’t know what the rules are anymore. They want to follow them. They know we have to be cautious, but they still don’t know what’s allowed. Even for those of us writing about this every day, it can become confusing. Can you imagine how it feels for someone who isn’t tasked with absorbing this 24/7?

The vaccine rollout has been no better.

This week a concerned resident called. They have an older family member whose appointment was booked, then cancelled, because of vaccine delays. The appointment has been rebooked, but they wanted a vaccine as soon as possible.

The family member waited in the drive thru, but was turned aside. Why? They were too old. Only people aged 48-54 could get the drive-thru shot. They had to keep waiting for their appointment.

The resident who called is younger. He’s within the drive-thru age range. He will get it before two others in his life who are at higher risk.

When I called the SHA, it was heavily implied that the resident who phoned me should have known the rules and that his family members should have been vaccinated a long time ago. I was questioned why I was asking these questions that have apparently been answered multiple times in provincial press conferences.

There are a few things wrong with that argument.

A lot of information comes through in those press conferences. They’re an hour-long most days, and touch on everything from variant spread to epidemiology to vaccines to outbreaks to mask use and restrictions. It takes a reporter a whole day to handle a single 24 hours worth of COVID news. We do our best, but even we get confused in the best of times. If COVID isn’t the only thing you’re tasked with understanding in an eight-hour period, you’ll be even worse off.

As for the timing of vaccines, not all people rushed off to register when their names were first called. Some did, and had their appointments pushed back because of supply issues.

They’ve gotten back in line.

Others, though, were apprehensive.

As they saw their family and friends get a vaccine and everything turn out okay, though, that fear lifted. They signed up to get vaccinated, too.

It’s true that once someone become eligible that they don’t become ineligible. They can still book through the online or phone system.

But if they want that vaccine faster, if they want to head through a drive thru or go to a walk-in, they can’t. They watch as people younger, people who are still at risk, but possibly at less risk than they are, get a vaccine, while they wait.

They’re being told to go get vaccinated. They’re trying, but they’re facing obstacles. They want to stick it to COVID. They believe a vaccine shouldn’t be that hard to access.

To them, It feels like an unfair punishment. To them, it doesn’t make sense.

These press conferences are part of the communications problem. They’re usually at least an hour long. They’re not only full of information, they’re also full of contradictions.

Tune into a press conference with Premier Scott Moe. First, you’ll hear Dr. Saqib Shahab urging everyone to stay home. For everyone to act like they’re in Regina. To wear a mask everywhere and not go out unless absolutely necessary.

You’ll hear Dr. Shahab talk about how the variants spread much faster and lead to much worse outcomes. How businesses that did well until the variants hit suddenly have outbreaks.

Then, Moe will chime in. He’ll say that while businesses are dealing with outbreaks, many are doing well. Saskatchewan, he will say, is doing well and things are getting better, and restrictions won’t be around for much longer. Moe may be trying to project optimism and strength, but his words serve only to dilute the message his top doc is giving.

He’ll announce public health measures – restrictions – that are lighter than what the chief medical health officer issues in the form of recommendations. He can urge residents to listen to Shahab all they want – they’re going to follow what they can’t do, not what they shouldn’t do. They’re going to follow the restrictions, not the recommendations.

This week alone, Shahab and others said that we have to stay home and stressed how dire the situation is now with variants spreading province-wide. ICU doctors have spoken about what it’s like to work somewhere bursting at the seams.

Meanwhile, the premier mused about communicating a timeline to open things back up again.

Even over at the SHA, messages change so fast that website materials contradict themselves. Twice we’ve had press releases sent only hours after each other about vaccine eligibility clarifying incorrect information. We’ll make the changes, but once that information is out, it’s near impossible to take back. People think “I saw it the first time,” and the change gets missed.

Many have also told me they hear differing messages from different health professionals on how long they have to isolate. Some have said they got different guidelines at different points through the contact tracing investigation. Others have said that themselves and a friend or family member exposed at the same event have different lengths of time they need to isolate.

They want to do the right thing, but they don’t know whose timeline to believe.

Residents have been told to take personal responsibility. That the way through the pandemic is following directions and getting vaccinated.

The problem is they don’t understand the directions. Some are sending them left and others right. Some are telling them to take a sharp turn, while others only tell them to adjust to a slightly different path.

They’re told to go get a vaccine. But they can’t get one quickly because they’re too old. Maybe they should have gone sooner. But now that they want to go get one, it’s difficult. They get discouraged. They get frustrated.

And those are the ones who tried to play their part. Who tried to get informed, and left more confused than when they started.

That’s a travesty. It’s a travesty that lies at the feet of the provincial government, for a confusing rollout plan that they haven’t been able to justify to anyone, that is so convoluted and contradictory that no one knows what is going on anymore.

The province needs to take a close look at not just its restrictions and vaccination plan, but also how it goes about communicating with residents.

What’s being done now clearly isn’t working.

When I emailed the health authority Friday morning to clarify the vaccine points, I was told that the questions have been answered before in press conferences and it would be pointless to arrange an interview to have them answered again. I was promised a statement by days end. It never arrived.

I finally got the statement Monday morning.

“The decision to target specific ages for drive-thru vaccine clinics is to ensure we are utilizing the vaccine allotments in the most effective manner,” the SHA said.

“This is because of the current NACI guidelines limited the use of AstraZeneca to only those 55 and over. This provides flexibility to protect as many residents as possible below the age of 55, while still ensuring the safety of our oldest most vulnerable population.”

Still, though, it doesn’t answer why older adults who turn up at the drive thru would be turned away. Some may have cancelled their booked appointments thinking the drive thru was their answer, only to be turned away.

Even after publishing this column, the following week it took two-to-three clicks through websites to get the information that drive thrus were capped at age 54. Most information just advertised that they were open.

People have questions. They want to know what they are supposed to be doing, what is allowed and what isn’t and why. They want to protect themselves and those they love.  They don’t want political slogans. They want to hear one, unified message from everyone working on this front.

They want to take personal responsibility.

They just don’t know what personal responsibility to take.

** This column has been edited to reflect comment received from the Saskatchewan Health Authority.