Provincial health officials know they can’t stop the spread of the COVID Omicron variant, but they are hoping new restrictions, a ramped-up booster program and more rapid testing will slow it down.
Starting midnight on Wednesday, all bars, nightclubs, gyms, fitness centres and yoga and dance studios in B.C. will be shut down. All organized indoor gatherings, including wedding receptions and banquets, will be prohibited. Other seated events in cinemas, performance halls, concerts and sporting events will be reduced to 50-per-cent capacity. Restaurants, pubs and cafes will remain open, but tables will be limited to six people, who must not mingle with others in the establishment.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said it became apparent on Sunday that earlier measures introduced last Friday would not be enough to avoid serious impacts on the health-care system.
“It has become clear that our best case scenario about how Omicron might be different in terms of severity (is) looking less and less likely. We have seen an increase in hospitalizations in places like the UK and more recently in Quebec,” said Henry. “The consequences of not preparing for what is happening all around us in our global community is too great.”
B.C. set the highest daily record for new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday with 1,308 new infections. There are 6,348 active cases and 192 people hospitalized due to COVID-19, with 76 in intensive care.
So far in B.C., there have been 756 cases of the Omicron variant identified and Henry believes no one will escape being exposed to it.
“It is inevitable that most of us in the province will be exposed to this virus. It is, over time, very likely that all of us will have exposure to it,” she said. “We are now transitioning our social gatherings to try and reduce that risk of exposure until we can flatten and reduce the curve.”
Restrictions introduced last Friday that ban all sports tournaments will continue, as will the limit on private gatherings to 10 other people or one other household. However, Henry said unvaccinated people should not travel or attend private gatherings. She urged people to make their gatherings even smaller if possible and has recommended wearing masks, improving ventilation and spending some time outdoors during those get-togethers.
“I know at this time of year, we need to be with our family and close friends to get the emotional and physical support that we need. Pick your group, make it as small as possible, and stick with them during this holiday season.”
The restrictions will remain in place until Jan. 18 to give health officials time to understand more about the Omicron variant’s behaviour and to ramp up the province’s booster vaccine program and receive more rapid tests.
Dr. Horatio Bach, clinical assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at UBC’s faculty of medicine, said Tuesday he fully supports the new restrictions, given the Omicron variant’s high transmissibility.
“We have to continue to take precautions, because we cannot definitely say this new variant is mild. I would treat this virus like it is the worst variant because we don’t know what the long-term effect is on the heart or different parts of the body. We also don’t know what the effect will be neurologically,” he said.
“Treat this as the worst variant you could get.”
Bach said the virus is not static, and mutations will happen. His biggest worry is the possibility of a new mutation that is even more lethal.
“If people don’t get the vaccine, we will have this story over and over again. In six months, we will have a new variant, and we will need to start over and over again. The unvaccinated are incubators,” he said.
“People need to understand that Omicron may be mild, but you need to continue to protect yourself and your environment because anyone can generate a new variant.”
Health Minister Adrian Dix said plans are underway to begin mass vaccination clinics in the new year.
“This is a significant ramp-up,” he said. “We will finish our booster program at the end of April, which is a month earlier than what was planned when we announced the program in October.”
© NICK PROCAYLO Motorists and pedestrians line up at the Saint Vincent’s COVID testing site at 4875 Heather St.
The province will also expand its rapid-testing regime starting in January to begin making them available in schools to manage exposures. More tests will be available in long-term care homes, to allow all visitors to be tested.
Until now, B.C. has used close to half of its three million rapid tests in hospitals, correctional facilities, and to test staff in long-term care homes. They have been deployed to rural, remote and Indigenous communities, where clinical test sites are far away. The tests have also been used to manage outbreaks and clusters, as well as for screening programs at some businesses and organizations.
Although the province is expecting more than 11 million more tests by the end of January, none will be distributed to the general public, as Ontario has done. Henry said a program in the U.K. where people received regular rapid tests did not stop the surge in cases there. She said B.C. needs to preserve its supply for where it is needed.
“Right now, we do not have enough (rapid tests), and we have seen in some other places (where they are given to the general public) they will be rapidly taken up by people who have the agency to get them. What we need to do is make sure we have them to support testing in people who need that test and those who need help in managing their medical conditions.”
— With files from Denise Ryan
Rapid tests in B.C.: By the Numbers
• By end of year, B.C. expects a delivery of 200,000 PANBIO-brand rapid nasal-swab kits. The province also expects to receive 500,000 BTNX-brand tests.
• Between now and mid-January, B.C. expects to have an inventory of 2.6 million tests. 700,000 will be provided to COVID testing sites. 1.2 million will be sent to rural, remote and Indigenous communities. The rest will be distributed to long-term care facilities, acute care sites, businesses and organizations.
• By mid- to late January, B.C. expects to receive from the federal government 11 million rapid tests from various manufacturers.
• About seven million will be reserved for use by public health authorities. About three million tests will be provided to long-term care homes; rural, remote and Indigenous communities; and businesses and organizations. 500,000 tests will be provided for K-12 students and staff. Another 500,000 tests will be used for rapid testing of post-secondary students and staff who are symptomatic