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Opinion: U.K. variant of COVID-19 is in B.C. Now what?

Don't expect the health order to be lifted in January
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COVID-19 swab in lab Photo: Getty Images

It was inevitable that the so-called COVID-19 “U.K. variant” would make its way into Canada.

After all, the novel coronavirus does not respect boundaries and given that some Canadians were travelling back forth to the United Kingdom around the time the new strain was discovered – before a travel ban was instituted.

It was only a matter of time before it showed up in B.C.

“This was not unexpected,” Dr. Bonnie Henry told me. “There will be more cases.”

A huge question raised by the appearance of the U.K. variant of COVID-19 in B.C. is what impact will it have on public health orders?

For now, Henry told me no changes are planned, but she and other infectious disease experts have expressed concern about how much more transmissible the variant is compared to the original version of COVID-19.

In other words, the variant can spread quicker and have a deeper reach.

Early scientific evidence, however, suggests the variant is not more lethal than COVID-19.

This is potentially good news for our hospital system because even a large spike in variant cases may not necessarily overwhelm our hospitals.

On that front, we remain in good shape compared to most other provinces. Ontario went into a major lockdown after seeing its hospitalizations increase by more than 60% in one month, while its ICU cases have exploded by more than 80% in that time frame.

By contrast, B.C.’s hospitalization numbers have gone up by less than 20% and our ICU cases are up less than 30% in the same period.

As well, our hospital bed capacity remains at healthy levels, with less than 90% of regular beds in use and about 50% of ICU beds available (before the pandemic began, we were often at 105% capacity of regular bed use).

So the introduction of a variant COVID-19 virus may not create carnage, but its apparent high transmission rate has Henry asking for more resources in order to increase and enhance the monitoring of those people required to be in quarantine or self-isolation.

Henry told me she has no plans for an inter-provincial travel ban to thwart the spread of COVID-19 or its U.K. variant, a continuation of her position on that issue since the pandemic began.

Still, it will come as a surprise to see the public health order that bans gatherings and events not be extended past its Jan. 8 expiry date. Even the fact that going into last weekend our daily average numbers were steadily declining, as was our average mortality, the numbers are likely not low enough to satisfy Henry when it comes to easing restrictions.

Any cases arising from improper Christmas and New Year’s Eve gatherings will begin showing up over the next two weeks and may well halt the decline in our descending recent trends.

In addition, who knows how rampant the U.K. variant will actually become in the weeks ahead, and thus further complicate things?

Nevertheless, I will end on a positive note: it appears the recently developed COVID-19 vaccines will be effective on the U.K. variant as well.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.