The only Vote Socialist candidate for Vancouver school board has promised what no existing trustee is prepared to do.
Dr. Karina Zeidler says that if she’s elected on October 15, she will try to bring universal masking back to Vancouver public schools to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“I’m already seeing so many people infected by COVID in all kinds of different ways,” Zeidler, a family physician, told the Straight by phone. “So, by doing this, I’m hoping to improve the health of my community in general.”
Zeidler said that as part of her campaign, she plans to ask every other candidate what their position is on mask mandates in public schools.
“They are going to have to answer me—whether they favour the mask mandate or whether they favour disease and discrimination,” she stated. “Those are the two options.”
Zeidler is cofounder and a member of the steering committee of Protect Our Province B.C., which is a volunteer group of physicians, nurses, health scientists, health-policy specialists, and community advocates. It advocates for evidence-based policies in response to COVID-19 with the ultimate aim of ending the pandemic.
In her medical practice, she’s passionate about gender-affirming care and has a fair number of trans and nonbinary patients.
“We are either going to decide as a society that we want the community together to protect everybody, including our most vulnerable, or if we’re going to go ‘survival of the fittest’,” Zeidler said.
In B.C., public health officials have shifted the onus of responsibility from society as a whole to individuals by making it a personal responsibility to decide whether to wear a mask in indoor spaces. Vancouver Coastal Health deputy medical health officer Dr. Mark Lysyshyn recently articulated this philosophy in a recent interview on CTV.
According to Lysyshyn, most are protected from severe COVID with vaccination and a first booster, though some remain at risk. In the interview he also cautioned people about the health and well-being impacts of limiting social interactions.
“He’s actually promoting not wearing masks and going out and socializing with people,” Zeidler maintained. “It’s the opposite of what kind of education we should be putting out there.”
Zeidler argued that dropping indoor mask mandates “completely abandons” certain people in society. That includes those with disabilities and of low-income, as well as racialized and Indigenous people who have a higher rate of comorbidities leaving them more susceptible to severe cases of COVID.
“We really need to decide what it is that we believe in,” Zeidler said. “And right now, people have decided that the most important thing is to maintain the status quo—maintain our current societal hierarchy and colonial capitalism—and we don’t care if that means there is a whole bunch of people who are going to suffer death and disability because of that.”
She added that Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender stated in a March 16 letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry that it was discriminatory to lift mask mandates.
The Straight asked Zeidler if the next premier—expected to be Attorney General David Eby—should replace Henry as provincial health officer. Zeidler replied that it would be difficult to implement a completely different approach to managing the pandemic with Henry remaining at the helm.
“So, I would like to see a whole new team,” Zeidler said. “It’s never just the PHO [provincial health officer].”
In March after Henry cancelled the provincewide mask mandate, the Georgia Straight asked all Vancouver trustees if they would be willing to support reinstating universal masking in public schools, which they had the option to do as an employer.
The only trustee who responded, OneCity Vancouver’s Jennifer Reddy, said that she had “requested a full report from the School Medical Officer on the efficacy of continued mask use, the number and type of accommodations currently being made for immunocompromised students and staff, and an assessment of the rates of COVID in Vancouver schools”.
Under the School Act, Health Minister Adrian Dix appoints school medical officers for every district. Reddy’s request for a report did not result in any substantive change to the district’s mask policy, which reflects the province’s recommendation that face coverings remain optional.
Zeidler said that she feels “fairly confident” that if she were to be elected and could be in a group with other decision-makers and talk about basic human decency—especially around masking—she would be able to pull some of them over to her side.
She pointed to British statistics revealing that there were about 31,000 children in April who continued showing symptoms a year after contracting COVID-19.
“We’re talking about the population of Penticton who have been ill more than a year in a way that affects day-to-day life,” Zeidler said.
She said that there are examples of schools around the world that have halted transmission of COVID-19 with infrastructure improvements.
“So we know it’s possible,” she said. “It’s just is there a will to be able to do it? That doesn’t just benefit us in terms of COVID. It’s been incredible what we’ve seen when it comes to flu and other respiratory diseases during those seasons. All of the sudden, we realized there are these non-pharmacological ways for us to decrease the numbers.”
Zeidler acknowledged that ventilation to reduce airborne transmission is complicated and it would require people of different disciplines, including engineers, to revamp every school.
“That’s not going to happen overnight,” she admitted. “So, we need to think: what are the measures that we need right away? Masks—that’s the dead giveaway. That’s easy.”
According to her, it’s the precautionary principle in action. And Zeidler noted that in Alberta, documents showed that schools with mask mandates had three times less transmission of COVID-19 than other schools.
Meanwhile, a study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which was conducted during the Delta wave surge, showed 72 percent fewer cases of in-school transmission of COVID-19 in districts with mandatory masking compared to those with optional or partial masking policies.
“There’s no harm from masks,” Zeidler insisted. “Children are not sick in hospital because they’re wearing masks.”