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COVID-19: B.C. eyes further restrictions as Omicron cases soar


The province’s message is to remain diligent about infection prevention or COVID rates could reach new highs.

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B.C. is considering stricter controls on public events before the holidays, the provincial health officer warned Tuesday as the province reported 44 cases of COVID’s highly transmissible Omicron variant and ominous projections for a rapid spread.

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Transmission of the variant within the community is low now, Dr. Bonnie Henry said, but daily infections could hit up to 2,000 a day within six weeks, depending on Omicron’s reproduction rate and how well it can evade current vaccines, according to modelling information released Tuesday.

“What I’m telling people right now is to rethink what you’re doing over the holidays in terms of having gatherings with people, particularly large social gatherings with people (where) you don’t know their vaccination status,” Henry said.

B.C. reported 519 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, but no additional deaths.

Henry said the province is considering whether to lower the 50-person threshold at which proof of vaccination and safety plans are required for most public events.

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Health officials know COVID spreads more easily indoors, such as recent house parties around the University of Victoria that drove an outbreak with 124 confirmed cases so far, including four cases of the Omicron variant, Henry said.

The four Omicron cases are linked to players on UVic’s varsity rugby team who are believed to have contracted the virus at a post-tournament party after the national championships at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., Nov. 26-28.

A spokesperson for the University of B.C. said no cases had been found among the UBC team, which beat UVic 39-7 in the final. But the UBC team left immediately after the game and did not stay to socialize.

“We’ve seen what can happen with (parties), even if people are vaccinated,” Henry said. “We need to be thoughtful about how we approach these holidays.”

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Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix unveiled the warning to “be prudent” about holiday gatherings along with a regular COVID update, including the ominous Omicron projections, as other provinces were introducing even stricter measures.

On Tuesday, Quebec ordered many civil servants to return to working at home, Ontario introduced restrictions on visits to long-term-care facilities and PEI imposed limits on private indoor gatherings.

Henry said that, despite the dire projections in its modelling, it’s too soon to say how quickly Omicron will become dominant.

“Right now we have very limited community transmission with Omicron here in B.C., there’s a lot more in Ontario,” Henry said. “But we also know that it is more transmissible.”

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Health officials also know that Omicron causes more infections in people who are already vaccinated or have been infected before.

Still rising case counts will bring an increasing number of hospitalizations, Henry said, even if Omicron causes less severe illness generally as some experts believe, Henry said.

“We need to continue to do those things that we know work,” Henry said, including wearing masks, limiting the size of gatherings, making sure indoor venues are well ventilated and, above all, getting vaccinated.

One thing British Columbians will not be able to do is use COVID rapid tests before hosting events as a means to ensure safety as is being done in Alberta and Nova Scotia.

Henry said B.C. did not receives supplies of the kits that Alberta and Nova Scotia have, which lend themselves to at-home use and she argues they aren’t sensitive enough to clear people attending events.

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There are examples where people have used tests before gatherings, but false-negative results saw individuals go on to infect others, “so we can’t rely on them for that sort of single use,” she said.

Of Omicron cases detected in B.C. so far, 20 were traced to recent travel to countries including Nigeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, Germany, Poland and the U.S.

Seven of the cases were individuals who were not vaccinated, including two children under 11, although none have been hospitalized.

And while community transmission is low, it has been detected in all of B.C.’s health regions.

The concern over Omicron emerged in a briefing where Henry and Dix cautiously outlined some of the successes B.C. was experiencing before Omicron’s arrival, including rising vaccination rates, including regions hardest hit by COVID’s Delta-driven third wave.

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Dix said B.C.’s vaccination program has delivered nine million vaccine doses since it was launched just a year ago, with 610,000 of those third booster doses, starting with vulnerable populations.

Dix said the promise of B.C.’s booster program is to offer third doses to all British Columbians over the age of 18, which is now considered more important in light of Omicron’s transmissibility.

And the recruitment of hundreds of B.C. pharmacies for the booster program has expanded the system’s capacity to deliver doses by more than one third.

depenner@postmedia.com

twitter.com/derrickpenner

With files from Patrick Johnston, Postmedia, and The Canadian Press


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