It has been nearly three weeks since my last update and the hard realities of this pandemic are coming to the forefront once again. In B&M, we experienced four new infections during this time, 3 in Kansas City and the other in Toronto.
The number of active COVID-19 cases are rising steadily again in Canada driven largely by four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta. In each of these provinces, the reproductive number of the virus is above 1 again. That means each person with COVID-19 is currently infecting more than one other on average signaling the return of exponential growth and fall “waves”. In the US, the 7-day average of new cases is rising again after declining for nearly two months from the mid-July peak.
The virus has not changed its behaviour. It is out there doing its thing. What has changed is our behaviour. In some places, we have got just a little looser, a little less careful. It is understandable. We all feel the impulse to do what we normally do and enjoy regular activities. Cases are rising because people, emboldened by the freedoms of reopenings are choosing to interact more frequently, more closely and for longer periods. Here in Ontario, cases are not rising because of more testing. This is a common myth. We are clearly testing more than we were in the past spring but case counts have increased by 200% in the past 30 days while testing has increased by 30%.
So when it comes to stopping this virus, it is us. Not it. Not them. It is us.
As we progress further into the autumn and the inevitable seasonal amplification of this pandemic during October, November and December, we need to strive harder for perfection again. We need to be more careful at all times and in all places, particularly as the weather drives us all indoors.
As a company, we have work to do. During late July and early August, Ian and I asked all our salaried staff to complete a short survey on pandemic response. Unfortunately, with the absence of our regular all-staff meetings and our dependence on paper-based surveys, we did not reach our field-based staff this time around but we intend to do in the near future.
It is called a Pulse Survey – as in checking a pulse I suppose. It is designed to get a quick read. We did it because we wanted to hear from you outside of our regular survey schedule. We received responses from 1,121 people and over 50,000 words of commentary. I read and carefully consider every one. It is an anonymous survey but I hear the voices saying the words.
Most of the comments are constructive and thoughtful. Some are glib. Some are negative, not surprisingly. Some are balanced – offering good and bad. Some focus on a bigger picture while others focus on experience through a smaller more personal lens. Some are detailed. Some are self-serving. Some are funny while others sad. I’m good with hearing it all. The less varnish the better in my opinion. So, thank you.
We are very broad group across the many places we work. So the survey reflects a wide range of experience and perspective. Each office has experienced the pandemic in a different rhythm and intensity and this shows in results to some degree. Nonetheless, I want to share my general impressions.
B&Mers are more dialed-in now than ever before. They are more engaged and they want to comment, to participate, and to understand. This pleases me more than any other survey result. COVID-19 necessitates all hands at their fullest attention.
There was nearly universal endorsement of our pandemic response to-date and our focus on the health of our people. Some suggested that we could have been better prepared. I agree with this. Many of our essential service clients had pandemic emergency plans, we should have had one. We should have had a bigger stockpile of PPE, sanitizer and cleaning supplies.
The survey also reflected significant pride in our company for our response and resilience in a very challenging and uncertain time. I concur. We did a lot of the right things. Good things. We didn’t possess the best plan when this started but we had the people, institutional knowledge, and the foundation of emergency response and safety processes to move decisively, quickly and carefully. We shifted substantially to remote work without significant disruption. We tried very hard to strike the right balance between needs of our customers, our people and our communities. We did not please everyone. There were mistakes, miscues and breakdowns but, overall, our best was deemed to be pretty darn good by nearly all of you. We have received the same endorsement from customers, competitors, friends and strangers.
You all value information. You want communication, preferably in a regular, steady stream. Not just facts but perspective and emotion. Not just where we are at but where we are going. You appreciate an honest assessment of the good and the bad. The validation that what they are on course and the reassurance that we are OK. I am grateful for all the kind comments and encouragement about these updates. I am glad these messages have been meaningful. Me being me, the feedback illustrates what a lousy job that I have done communicating during the 28 years of my pre-pandemic B&M career.
Perhaps most importantly, many of you emphasized that we must continue doing what we are doing. With COVID-19 is on the rise again, this is as critical as it was last spring. I suspect we have relaxed somewhat over the summer. We need to re-commit to thoroughly and consistently apply our COVID-19 rules, controls and protections. They haven’t changed a lot since we began: hand washing, distancing, isolation and masks. We also need to continue to maintain our “fences” by limiting visitor traffic and inter-office travel. These interventions work to arrest the spread. We know they do. And they are going to be necessary for a long while yet. Kids are back in school and human interaction has increased. The risk of infection is again on the rise and we need to continue to apply what we know to stay safe.
We are learning more about how the virus is transmitted. As we do, we revisit and validate our protocols with the assistance of our medical advisors. While hand-hygiene remains critical, we now know the virus is much more likely to spread through the air via infected droplets and aerosols (micro-droplets) than touching surfaces infected by those droplets. This highlights the importance of masks and distancing. We know most contagions are happening either within the family or in “super-spreader” events characterized by continuous, close contact in confined spaces. This guides our thinking on our workplaces which could become such an event if we do not isolate the unwell, distance, mask, limit meeting sizes and durations, use virtual meeting tools and gather in larger spaces or outside where possible.
Someone asked me recently about my thoughts about when a vaccine will be available. It reminded me of that old commercial that began “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV”. I am in no position to predict the future as it relates to this pandemic but I try to keep my eyes and ears open by following a number of the experts listed in this article including Bob Wachter, Natalie Dean, Caitlin Rivers, Scott Gotlieb, Andy Slavitt, Craig Spencer and Eric Topol:
These doctors and scientists are all excellent communicators in addition to their obvious technical pedigree. To this list, I would add Dr. David Fisman and Dr Isaac Bogoch who are based here in Toronto and are more focused on the Canadian scene.
So rather than predict, I will try to crystallize the things that I have learned as of today into a few assumptions that can be safely made. One, vaccine development is happening at a furious pace globally but it will take a lot of time – months not weeks – for clinical trials, for clearance/approval, for mass production, and eventually for provisioning a vaccine to a meaningful proportion of the population. The scale of this challenge is simply enormous. Consequently, we can expect that extensive public and private health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 will be with us to the end of 2021 or even beyond. Two, this pandemic will likely get worse again before it gets better. There will be more spikes in cases, such as here in Ontario right now, before the end of this. During the Spanish Flu pandemic that began in 1918, there were four significant waves of infections over two years. Three, technology and science will improve the speed and accuracy of testing and tracing. This will make it a lot easier and safer to live and function in a pandemic world while we await a vaccine. Four, this too shall pass. It may take a while. The road will remain rocky. But we will get through this and the virus will eventually be overcome.
We have made such great progress at B&M and we have got to keep it rolling. Please keep the feedback coming. It is so important to stay in touch and sustain connection during this difficult time. This pandemic is far from over. Please continue to make sensible and safe personal choices in your daily lives to protect yourselves and those around you.