British Columbians could expand their social bubble to their ‘safe six’ by the end of February, said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry Friday, but easing restrictions will all depend on the trajectory of COVID-19 transmissions.
And with new variants doubling in the last week, Henry said any explosion in cases would sink such hopes.
“I’m not putting an end to the orders we have now,” she said at a Feb. 5 press conference. “I don’t want people to start thinking about, ‘Yeah, we’re out of this, we’re back to normal.’”
To date, 28 cases across the province have been identified as 'variants of concern.’ That includes 14 cases of the U.K. variant linked to people with a history of travel to the U.K, Ireland and Dubai, among other countries. Another five have been associated to close contacts with a history of travel.
The U.K. variant, or B.1.1.7, is a highly contagious form of the coronavirus that can spread at least 50% faster than the current predominant strain in B.C.
But when it comes to the South African variant, or B.1.351, data coming out in the last week suggests it causes more severe illness, something Henry said “is worrisome.”
“If we start to see one of these variants take off, all bets are off,” she said.
Across B.C., public health is working to ramp up its surveillance of the new variants, a plan which looks to establish a system of markers that would flag positive COVID-19 tests and target samples for full genome sequencing.
Henry said laboratories are looking to screen thousands of samples per week, up from roughly 750 conducted now and eventually covering every molecular test in the province.
At the same time, Henry said B.C.’s capacity for full genome sequencing will also be increased, and public health workers will be moving to target suspect outbreaks, whether in schools or surrounding recent travel.
For example, while close contacts aren’t usually tested until symptoms develop, that will change with the targeted testing of certain outbreaks involving a highly contagious variant.
CASES PLATEAUING AMID VACCINE SHORTFALLS
The good news: long-term case data from the BC Centre for Disease Control indicates the virus is plateauing in many of the province’s hardest-hit regions, like Fraser Health, from a peak in November.
Whereas contact tracers were heavily strained to keep up with peak November caseloads, that pressure has been eased across the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland, while caseloads in the north, Interior and Sea-to-Sky regions of the province are still putting a heavy burden on smaller public health teams. In Whistler, for example, 547 cases have been identified between Jan. 1 and Feb. 2.
Henry said public health workers have been unable to trace the source in 20% of cases across B.C.
Transmissions across the province are now being driven by people between the age of 20 and 49, with younger groups passing on the virus in social settings and older generations primarily spreading COVID-19 in workplaces.
Scientists and health officials have repeatedly painted the current status of the pandemic as a race between the emergence of new highly contagious variants and the roll-out of vaccines.
But on Friday, Henry said cases of COVID-19 among British Columbians over age 80 have come down significantly due to vaccinations across the province’s long-term care homes.
“We’re now seeing that it’s helping us to stop those outbreaks rapidly,” said Henry, adding 55 people have had a severe negative reaction to a vaccine, mostly due to an allergy.
The long-term trajectory of vaccine rollouts is less certain.
In B.C., across Canada and in many other countries, delivery of currently approved vaccines have faced significant delays as manufacturers work to ramp up their manufacturing capacity and meet contracts with dozens of countries.
WHAT WOULD AN EASING OF RESTRICTIONS LOOK LIKE?
In floating the possibility of easing current public health restrictions by the end of February, Henry pointed to a slow and limited increase in social interactions.
That could mean limited faith services and the resumption of group activities, though Henry did not go into detail.
Currently, British Columbians are reducing social contacts by 40% to 50% compared to pre-pandemic levels, she said.
“We are in a place of a little bit more uncertainty. We need to buy some time to understand if these positive things that we’re seeing are going to allow us to take away some of the restrictions we have in place now, and be able to do that safely,” Henry said.
“That’s why I’m leaving it open-ended.”