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BC Extends Most COVID Restrictions for a Month

Gyms to reopen, but health officials say risk to health-care system remains high as hospitalizations surge.

Moira Wyton 18 Jan 2022TheTyee.ca

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.

Most of British Columbia’s current restrictions will remain in place for at least the next month as pandemic cases continue to swamp hospitals.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced today her orders from late December would be extended, prohibiting sports tournaments and restricting indoor gatherings and events to 50-per-cent capacity until at least Feb. 16.

Bars and nightclubs will remain closed, and all businesses still require a COVID-19 safety plan.

Gyms and fitness centres, which Henry said were “high-risk” settings when she closed them in December, will be permitted to begin reopening Thursday, with mandatory capacity limits, masks and proof of vaccination.

“My challenge is to find that balance to make sure we’re doing just enough to address the situation we’re in and to not overwhelm our system,” said Henry. “Today I’m taking the cautious step of reopening gyms and exercise facilities with capacity limits and continuous use of the BC Vaccine Card.”

Henry acknowledged the importance of physical activity for physical and mental health, and said she encouraged people to keep their masks on while exercising if they choose to return.

“We can safely restart with capacity limits in those higher-risk settings,” she said.

There are 819 people in hospital with COVID-19, smashing the previous peak of 515 in April 2021. Hundreds of non-urgent scheduled surgeries have been cancelled across the province this week alone, including 154 in Vancouver Coastal Health.

Provincial modelling from last week suggested Omicron transmission may have peaked, with “challenging weeks” ahead for hospitals which may see as many as 250 patients admitted per day by this weekend.

But independent experts have cast doubt on the province’s modelling, noting that testing data is of little value when so few individuals are eligible for testing or able to access it right now.

“My analysis of the data is saying that it's too early to say that we're really past the peak,” Sally Otto of the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group told the CBC Friday.

“The overall drop in case numbers merely reflects the fact that people were asked not to test, and a lot of people can no longer afford to wait in line for hours to get tested because they are back at work or back at school."

On Monday, the advocacy collective Protect Our Province BC also called on the province to establish an independent science advisory table for COVID-19 to ensure the province’s response is guided by the best evidence available.

Health-care workers told The Tyee last week two Vancouver hospitals were already overwhelmed by increasing patient numbers and staff illness.

At least 17,958 health-care workers called in sick last week for all illnesses including COVID-19, about double the same week in 2020 and 2021, Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday. There are about 188,000 health-care workers provincewide.

Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health confirmed their hospitals and other health-care facilities were struggling with staff shortages due to illness, snowfall and the sheer number of COVID-19 patients requiring care.

“Sustaining full staffing continues to be a challenge across the region and makes it difficult to maintain the high levels of health-care services in some rural communities, surgical capacity and specialized programs,” read a joint statement from Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health authorities.

The province has said a field hospital at the Vancouver Convention Centre could be opened if needed. Asked how it would be mobilized and staffed, Dix said he was “taking the steps now to ensure when British Columbians need services, they can get them right now… I don't think we're near that point yet."

People who are unvaccinated are 12 times more likely to be hospitalized, 27 times more likely to require critical care and 40 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than vaccinated people of the same age, according to provincial data released Friday.

Henry and Dix continued to encourage people to get vaccinated and book their booster shots as soon as they are eligible. A booster increases protection from serious illness due to Omicron to as high as 88 per cent, compared to as little as 40 per cent protection with two doses.

A Monday order from Henry also gave local medical officers of health the authority to collect vaccination status data from school staff in order to identify which schools are most at risk of transmission.

“There’s a narrative now that Omicron is mild,” said Henry. “We need to be very careful to dismiss this right now. It may be most people are not becoming seriously ill, but with high rates of transmission there are still lots of people who do get seriously ill.”

In particular, people over 70 without a booster dose are at elevated risk of serious illness, as is anyone who is not yet vaccinated.

“This leads to a strain on our hospitals at the same time we’re seeing health-care workers falling ill as well,” Henry added.

But Henry said there is no plan to require people to have a booster to be considered fully vaccinated under the BC Vaccine Card program.

“That primary series right now is still giving really strong protection for people against serious illness and hospitalization,” said Henry, noting that many aren’t yet eligible for a booster dose. “I have no plans on changing that.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Coronavirus, BC Politics

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