COVID-19 in B.C.: Dr. Bonnie Henry extends health orders to "buy time" during uncertainty about variants and trends

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      Today is the day that numerous British Columbians have been waiting to find out whether or not the current provincial health orders, which were set to expire today (February 5), would continue on or be lifted.

      First, the good news: B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said at today’s news conference that there are encouraging signs in B.C., with improvements in specific areas including a reduced reproductive rate of the virus and a gradual bending of the curve.

      That said, there remain many areas of concern, including where increased transmission continues on.

      Henry, with B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, presented a data and modelling update to show British Columbians where we are in the pandemic, and what she based her decisions upon for health orders.

      Data update

      Henry said B.C.’s epidemic curve peaked in November, and there was a brief surge in early January, due to transmission during the winter holidays, which has since decreased.

      When it comes to specific areas, Henry said that in recent weeks, there have been steady decreases in hard-hit areas, particularly in Surrey and in the Fraser Health region, which she said is “really great news”.

      However, she pointed out that there have been recent increased transmission in communities in Northern and Interior Health regions, particularly in areas that had not previously had cases.

      In addition, Henry said that there have also been increases in Vancouver Coastal Health on the North Shore and the Coast Garibaldi area.

      Dix said that there have been 547 cases in Whistler (which is part of the Vancouver Coastal Health region) from January 1 to February 2. But he added that there have only two cases have required hospitalization and there haven’t been any deaths.

      Like other ski resort-related community clusters in Big White and Fernie, Dix said the cases in Whistler are mostly linked to people in their 20s and 30s, who live, work, and socialize together.

      B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix
      Province of British Columbia

      Age-based case numbers

      Although much concern has been raised among children and teenagers at schools, the data reveals that there was a peak in cases after the winter holidays among those 19 years and younger, which Henry said was linked to social events during the winter break.

      She added that B.C. is not seeing “accelerated transmission among school aged children”—she said the most transmission is taking place among those between the ages of 19 and 40 years old.

      Age-based data about transmission, hospitalizations, and deaths reveals that those 19 years and younger are the least likely to be infected or have severe illness, while, conversely, the opposite is true for elderly people.

      Yet, Henry pointed out that B.C. is seeing a “concerted and continuous decrease” in transmission among people over age 80, which she emphasized is of particular importance as the immunization program continues on and amid efforts to protect the most vulnerable population groups.

      She said the two main sites of transmission in the province have tended to be social gatherings or interactions and workplaces.

      Variants of concern

      In B.C., variants have been detected in 28 cases.

      For the B117 variant (originally detected in the U.K.), there are 14 cases linked to travel (from the U.K., Ireland, Dubai, and other countries) while five have been acquired from close contacts who had travelled.

      Henry said these cases appear to be relatively contained but preventing any further transmission remains a concern.

      For the B1351 variant (first detected in South Africa), one case was linked to travel while eight cases were acquired locally.

      Of particular concern, she said the point of transmission for five of the eight locally acquired cases remain uncertain. Three people were contacts of someone who acquired the virus either from travel or locally.

      Despite B.C.’s progress, Henry said rapid increases could take place at any time, as has been seen in other provinces or countries, due to variants of concern in the province. 

      Provincial health orders

      After reviewing all of this data, Henry said she will keep her provincial health orders for social gatherings and events in place.

      She said will “be continually reviewing and reconsider the need for these restrictions based on the incidence and prevalence of the virus”, as well as any new information about transmission and the progress of the vaccination supply and immunization program.

      She said B.C. needs to “buy time” for several reasons.

      One is to understand more about how the variants could affect transmission. The other is to get the provincial immunization program back on track and running at “full speed”.

      Unfortunately, one or two superspreader events or even slight increases in social contacts, she explained, could “quickly counteract all of our progress and work”,  particularly with the if the variants spread further.

      As we approach the end of this month, Henry said that the data will inform “whether more action is required or if we can start to ease the restrictions we have in place”.

      Nonetheless, she said we still ace a “hard push” throughout this month and need to bring the curve down further.

      If we continue on our current path, she said we could begin to prepare for specific activities to resume with safety plans in place, including faith services and youth sports, as well as slightly increasing social interactions to six safe contacts.

      Although she didn’t provide a specific date or criteria, she said she will be reviewing numerous factors, including where clusters and transmissions are happening, whether the downward trend is continuing, level of case rates, monitoring outbreaks, and numbers of variant cases.

      She is intentionally leaving the time frame for the current provincial health orders open-ended due to the current uncertainty.

      “If we start to see one of these variants take off, then all bets are off and we may need to actually increase some of the restrictions we have in place,” she said, adding that she would prefer not to do so.

      However, she said she thinks that B.C. will be making good progress in the coming weeks.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.