Wave or ripple? B.C. health officials focus on vaccinations rather than restrictions amid COVID-19 surge

The province’s top doctor is focusing on vaccinating B.C.’s way out of what is shaping up to be a fourth wave of the pandemic, even though combatting the ultra-contagious Delta variant will require an exceptionally high immunization rate. 

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry defended her strategy when CTV News Vancouver asked what her plan was for the fourth wave and whether she accepted that widespread infection of unvaccinated people would be the norm now that few restrictions remain in place during Step 3 of the provincial reopening plan.

“We expected we were going to see increased numbers of cases, and we've taken additional measures in those focal areas where we're starting to see that high increase,” said Henry, referring to the majority of cases being in Interior Health where an indoor mask mandate has been reinstated in the Central Okanagan region.

“Even a small increase in immunization across the age groups makes a massive difference in whether we see a wave that is big, or something that is more of a ripple.”

Caroline Colijn, SFU professor and Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Evolution, Infection and Public Health, is one of the country’s top infectious disease modellers and a member of the B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group. She agrees that vaccinations are tremendously important, but points out the Delta variant is now dominant in B.C. and argues every effort should be made to minimize infections.

"I've always said we should be using all the tools in the toolkit,” said Coljin. “If we need to be adding masks, we need to be doing that, and they have been doing that in the Interior. If we need to be adding rapid testing in the toolkit, we should be adding it."

SURGE UNEXPECTED, EVEN BY WATCHDOG SCIENTISTS

Colijn said the academics, independent data scientists, infectious disease modellers and public health researchers that make up the modelling group were surprised by this week’s surge in cases, which has seen B.C.’s seven-day rolling average for new cases more than double in just 10 days. Active cases are now twice what they were two months ago.

“We have been modelling Delta having a higher transmission rate, and so as its frequency goes up, you’d expect faster transmission, so we did kind of expect that, but we didn’t really (expect to) see the high numbers of Delta and the growth in Delta,” she said, adding the exact percentage of cases that are Delta is still unclear.

“I think there’s been a widespread hope that the relationship between cases and hospitalizations is going to be different so that we can withstand so many more infections before we see pressure on the health-care system, but if you look at the U.S., cases and hospitalizations are tracking pretty well.”

Coljin notes that, as in Canada, the United States is seeing the vast majority of infections among unvaccinated people who have no defense against the Delta strain, which is believed to be more serious as well as more infectious.

The B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group had urged a slow and gradual reopening from the restrictions imposed during the third wave in the spring, warning that if the province allowed too many freedoms too soon, the vaccination rate wouldn’t be high enough to slow spread of the Delta variant. 

MORE CASES AND HOSPITALIZATIONS THAN LAST SUMMER

At first blush, it’s surprising that B.C. has so many more cases this summer than it did during the same week last year.

With 402 new cases Thursday, the seven-day average has gone up to 247; it was just 41 on August 6, 2020. There were just 11 people in hospital then, compared to 58 now, so the ratio of cases to hospitalizations is roughly the same.

Colijn explained that there are nearly no restrictions in place now, compared to the many that were in place last summer, and said while unvaccinated people are more likely to spread COVID-19 between each other, the nature of the virus has changed.

“We have really transmissible variants -- this is not the COVID we had before,” she warned. “It's almost like a new virus just because it's so much more transmissible."

B.C. has yet to involve family doctors in the immunization campaign and has left pharmacists on the sidelines for most of it, even though first doses have plateaued and experts warn that 90 per cent of the overall population needs to be vaccinated to stop a variant as contagious as Delta. None of the vaccines has been approved for children under 12, who are among the nearly one million British Columbians who haven’t been immunized.