BC Extends COVID-19 Restrictions Indefintely

By: Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee
Restrictions on social gatherings and public events will continue indefinitely as British Columbia ramps up vaccinations and efforts to  track variant COVID-19 cases, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry  said today.
Overall cases numbers are  stable or trending down in all health regions, Henry reported, and  reproductive rates — the number of new cases stemming from each original  infection — are hovering slightly below one on a provincewide basis.
But as hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline, Henry offered some hope.
If people protect the progress made so far,  she said, then restrictions could be eased to allow socializing among  one’s “safe six” contacts, sports and some in-person faith services to  begin as early as the end of this month.
“We are bending our curve,  slowly and steadily. But we need to protect the progress we have made  since the start of this year,” she said.
Henry flagged an issue of  “great concern,” noting that the number of cases involving two more  easily transmissible variants, originally identified in the United  Kingdom and South Africa, have doubled from 14 to 28 in the last few  weeks.
Of the nine cases of the South African  variant, five have no identified exposure link, suggesting there is  wider community transmission. No cases of the variant first identified  in Brazil have been identified.
“This is something we are watching,” Henry said.
“Right now, we need to stay the path, we  need to buy time… to understand whether these variants of concern are  going to affect transmission in our community and… to get our  immunization program back up to full speed.”
Variants result when the virus multiplies, and its genetic material mutates slightly in the process.
Sometimes these mutations can lead to these emerging variants being more easily transmitted.
There is some evidence they may cause more  serious illness, and some early data suggests both Pfizer and Moderna  vaccines could be less effective on the South African variant.
But Henry says it’s difficult to know yet if the variants cause more serious illnesses.
This uncertainty raises the risk that rapid spread could take hold even faster if restrictive measures don’t remain in place.
“So far those variants seem to be  relatively contained, but it is concerning to us that we have  transmission of these variants in our communities,” said Henry.
“If we slip a little bit, the potential for transmission goes up, and that is of particular concern right now.”
Currently about 750 positive cases are tested for the variants’ genetic sequences each week.
But Henry said the BC  Centre for Disease Control is developing an indicator test the province  hopes to use to screen all positive COVID-19 samples for any variant. If  the test is positive, a full genetic sequencing would be done to  determine which variant is involved.
Maintaining restrictions will buy time for  the province to ramp up variant testing and catch up on its vaccination  plan, which has been slowed by delayed shipments from both vaccine  manufacturers.
“This will allow us to respond quickly and  rapidly to any surge in variants of concern that may come up quickly,”  said Henry. “Just one superspreader event can quickly counteract our  progress and work.”
But cases, hospitalizations and deaths  among seniors, particularly those over 80 and in long-term care, are  decreasing, signalling the impact of prioritizing residents for  vaccination.
Henry said 87 per cent of eligible  long-term care residents and 89 per cent of staff have been vaccinated.  The majority of those who have not are currently ill and will be  eligible for their first dose when they have recovered.
So far, 525 of 26,895 vaccinated residents and 5,676 of 34,658 staff have had their second doses.
“Reduction of vaccine supplies creates some  challenges,” Health Minister Adrian Dix said. “It’s very important we  finish second doses in long-term care, so we can take the other sets of  steps elsewhere.”
Adults aged 20-29 continue to make up a  disproportionate number of cases, which Henry attributed to social  gatherings and workplace exposures.
But school-aged children, particularly under 10, continue to transmit the virus and become ill at a lower rate.
Henry and Dix said the numbers are  promising, but B.C. must continue its hard push to reduce transmission  so that variants can be tracked and vaccines distributed to those who  need them most.
“The difference is still down to each of us,” said Dix.
Henry said progress is being made toward eased restrictions.
“We all want to get to the day where these  orders are lifted,” she said. “We’re not quite there yet, but we are  getting closer every day.”