An independent collective of doctors and researchers are calling on British Columbia to ramp up measures to avert yet another variant-driven pandemic wave now that the Omicron variant has reached B.C.
While the province is focusing on the importance of vaccination, the Protect Our Province BC group says more is needed to prevent Omicron — which has hallmark characteristics of being a more transmissible and severe strain — from overwhelming B.C.’s health-care system like Delta did in the fall.
More rapid testing, better ventilation and encouraging the use of N95 masks to prevent airborne spread could all help B.C. weather this new variant as well as possible, said family physician and palliative care specialist Dr. Amy Tan.
“We need a vaccine-plus strategy, driven not just by vaccines, but to continue widespread testing, tracing and isolating,” said Tan, a founding member of Protect Our Province, in a Wednesday presentation.
Vaccines are highly effective at preventing infection and serious illness against earlier strains of COVID-19 and are expected to still be very protective against Omicron.
But focusing almost solely on vaccinations, as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry did on Tuesday, is like “fighting this with one hand behind our backs,” said Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto who also spoke Wednesday.
With the evolving evidence of COVID-19’s airborne nature and the risks posed by superspreader events, “we need to start using those tools to keep ourselves safe,” Fisman stressed.
In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health declined to respond directly to the calls from Protect Our Province.
"Rapid point-of-care test kits are widely available," read the statement, pointing to government programs that make them available in some health-care settings and to select businesses, non-profits and charities.
The statement also touted 45,000 previously announced HVAC ventilation and air filtration improvements in hospitals and schools, which are not the same as HEPA filtration doctors are calling for.
"We know that public health measures work to prevent the spread of COVID, and we have seen how important vaccinations are to protect people from more severe illness," it read.
Tan wants to see rapid tests made free and available to everyone, particularly as holiday gatherings approach. Right now, the province is limiting distribution to select health care and business settings, and not making them publicly available for free.
It’s an equity issue too because one rapid test costs $40, making them only a viable option for those who can afford to pay, Tan said.
Fisman also noted that Ontario, which fared comparatively better with Delta in the fall, has HEPA filters in every classroom and has kept kids masked in classrooms throughout the year. It’s hard to know what measures were most important, he said, but both clearly helped.
On Tuesday, Henry confirmed the first case of the Omicron variant in B.C. in the Fraser Health authority and said the province would consider moving up third vaccine doses as a result.
And in her response to a question from The Tyee, both Fisman and Tan were surprised to hear Henry call COVID-19 “endemic” in B.C. because of how much virus is circulating in the community.
Endemic means the reproductive rate of a disease is decreasing to one or near one without any public health measures, Fisman noted, meaning the population’s susceptibility goes down naturally. “Endemic means it is chugging along at a low level, with life back to normal.”
But B.C. continues to see an average of four deaths per day, high per-capita case rates among unvaccinated people, and transmission levels only brought under control through public health measures. More than 300 people remain in hospital with COVID-19 as of Tuesday.
While it may reach endemicity at some point, “the pandemic is not over in B.C.,” said Tan.
And time is of the essence to act, as B.C. confirmed its first case of the variant on Tuesday with more possible cases under investigation.
Despite unknowns about how transmissible the new variant is, whether it causes more severe illness, or if it can evade vaccine protection in any way; even a slight increase in transmission from Delta could overwhelm hospitals quickly if left to compound.
“Small changes make big differences when we’re talking about exponential growth,” said Fisman.
At this point, Fisman and Tan agreed another lockdown would represent a failure to use the tools we already have to avert yet another wave that will likely resemble the four before it.
Preventative actions taken now can keep us many times safer in the future, Fisman stressed, but B.C. and other provinces fumbled two variants before this one.
“It’s like the Titanic and we haven’t hit the iceberg yet,” he said. “But if you react when it’s happening, it’s too late.”