Restrictions on social gatherings and public events will continue indefinitely as British Columbia ramps up vaccinations and efforts to track variant COVID-19 cases, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said today.
Overall cases numbers are stable or trending down in all health regions, Henry reported, and reproductive rates — the number of new cases stemming from each original infection — are hovering slightly below one on a provincewide basis.
But as hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline, Henry offered some hope.
If people protect the progress made so far, she said, then restrictions could be eased to allow socializing among one’s “safe six” contacts, sports and some in-person faith services to begin as early as the end of this month.
“We are bending our curve, slowly and steadily. But we need to protect the progress we have made since the start of this year,” she said.
Henry flagged an issue of “great concern,” noting that the number of cases involving two more easily transmissible variants, originally identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, have doubled from 14 to 28 in the last few weeks.
Of the nine cases of the South African variant, five have no identified exposure link, suggesting there is wider community transmission. No cases of the variant first identified in Brazil have been identified.
“This is something we are watching,” Henry said.
“Right now, we need to stay the path, we need to buy time... to understand whether these variants of concern are going to affect transmission in our community and... to get our immunization program back up to full speed.”
Variants result when the virus multiplies, and its genetic material mutates slightly in the process.
Sometimes these mutations can lead to these emerging variants being more easily transmitted.
There is some evidence they may cause more serious illness, and some early data suggests both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines could be less effective on the South African variant.
But Henry says it’s difficult to know yet if the variants cause more serious illnesses.
This uncertainty raises the risk that rapid spread could take hold even faster if restrictive measures don’t remain in place.
“So far those variants seem to be relatively contained, but it is concerning to us that we have transmission of these variants in our communities,” said Henry.
“If we slip a little bit, the potential for transmission goes up, and that is of particular concern right now.”
Currently about 750 positive cases are tested for the variants’ genetic sequences each week.
But Henry said the BC Centre for Disease Control is developing an indicator test the province hopes to use to screen all positive COVID-19 samples for any variant. If the test is positive, a full genetic sequencing would be done to determine which variant is involved.
Maintaining restrictions will buy time for the province to ramp up variant testing and catch up on its vaccination plan, which has been slowed by delayed shipments from both vaccine manufacturers.
“This will allow us to respond quickly and rapidly to any surge in variants of concern that may come up quickly,” said Henry. “Just one superspreader event can quickly counteract our progress and work.”
But cases, hospitalizations and deaths among seniors, particularly those over 80 and in long-term care, are decreasing, signalling the impact of prioritizing residents for vaccination.
Henry said 87 per cent of eligible long-term care residents and 89 per cent of staff have been vaccinated. The majority of those who have not are currently ill and will be eligible for their first dose when they have recovered.
So far, 525 of 26,895 vaccinated residents and 5,676 of 34,658 staff have had their second doses.
“Reduction of vaccine supplies creates some challenges,” Health Minister Adrian Dix said. “It’s very important we finish second doses in long-term care, so we can take the other sets of steps elsewhere.”
Adults aged 20-29 continue to make up a disproportionate number of cases, which Henry attributed to social gatherings and workplace exposures.
But school-aged children, particularly under 10, continue to transmit the virus and become ill at a lower rate.
Henry and Dix said the numbers are promising, but B.C. must continue its hard push to reduce transmission so that variants can be tracked and vaccines distributed to those who need them most.
“The difference is still down to each of us,” said Dix.
Henry said progress is being made toward eased restrictions.
“We all want to get to the day where these orders are lifted,” she said. “We’re not quite there yet, but we are getting closer every day.”