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BC Politics

BC to Stay the Course on Reopening Plan Despite Rise in Cases

But one expert says the spread of the Delta variant calls for a return to masks and some other measures.

Moira Wyton 5 Aug

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

As experts warn British Columbia is already in a fourth pandemic wave, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said today the province has no plans to change course on its reopening plan.

“It’s not perfect, and we always knew we would see increased numbers of cases,” she said at a noon briefing.

Henry acknowledged the number of new cases is increasing, driven by the Delta variant. “What we’re not seeing is the widespread transmission to people who are high-risk that we have seen in the past,” she said, noting many seniors are now vaccinated.

On Wednesday, she told News 1130 the province was still on track to enter the final stage of reopening, which would allow concerts and other large-scale events, as soon as Sept. 7.

Vaccinations are now the best tool we have to fight infections, Henry said. “Even the smallest increase in vaccination makes the difference between whether we see a wave or something that’s more of a ripple.”

On Wednesday the province reported 342 new cases of COVID-19, about half of which were in the Interior.

That’s almost double the daily average over the August long weekend, which saw 740 cases over four days. It put the province on track to see Delta variant cases, at last count nearly two-thirds of cases in B.C., double every seven to 10 days.

The province is reaching out to the approximately 900,000 British Columbians who are eligible but unvaccinated and who account for almost all new cases of COVID-19.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said today that 81.7 per cent of people over 12 had at least one dose of vaccine, and 68.4 per cent had both. “There’s obviously more work to do,” he said.

But Sarah Otto, a professor at the University of British Columbia and member of the independent BC COVID-19 Modelling Group, says relying on vaccines isn’t enough to prevent the highly transmissible Delta variant from spreading.

Without both stringent public health measures like mandatory masks and more widespread vaccination, “a perfect storm is what we’re in,” she said.

“In the past all of these waves have been bent back down by public health responses,” said Otto, who specializes in mathematical modelling in UBC’s zoology department. “We know Delta is the worst, and yet public health seems least interested in mandating restrictions.

“And acting late always causes more cases, because that delay means time for exponential growth.”

While vaccines greatly reduce the risk of becoming seriously ill or transmitting the virus — even the Delta variant — fully vaccinated people can still carry and spread it, although they are about 90 per cent less likely to infect others than unvaccinated people.

And while hospitalizations have declined as vaccinations protect the most vulnerable, a recent pre-print of a study conducted in Ontario suggests the Delta variant makes someone infected twice as likely to need hospital treatment and more than three times more likely to require intensive care as the initial COVID-19 strain.

The study includes both vaccinated and unvaccinated people but noted that vaccines drastically reduce the risk of serious illness in the first place.

It could mean B.C. will see a rise in hospitalizations due to the Delta variant, particularly among unvaccinated adults in their 40s and 50s who now make up a majority of the 55 people in hospital.

“We’re seeing this shift to assuming hospitalization will be fine because of vaccines,” said Otto, “but if you’re unvaccinated, you’re at a high risk of being infected by Delta and landing in the hospital.”

The province is watching hospitalizations closely, but Henry said she was not considering further broad public health restrictions at this time.

“We have taken additional measures in hotspots, and yes we are pushing very hard to make people aware that the important measure we have now to manage outbreaks is immunization,” she said.

But Otto says that with vaccinated people still able to transmit the virus and more likely to present without symptoms, the province should bring back mandatory masks in public indoor spaces, alongside other measures to minimize spread.

What B.C. does now will not just protect the population from Delta, but from the variants that will no doubt come after it.

“We know what to do, but we’ve relaxed maybe too much for the moment,” said Otto. “Delta is a variant that we should not be playing around with.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, BC Politics

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