British Columbia·Analysis

Dix says B.C. follows 'the science' in the pandemic, but what happens when the science changes?

Changes are being considered in the face of a new wave with a new variant — but those changes aren't happening immediately, despite the now common cycle of some pushing for large changes to B.C.'s response as soon as a new variant of concern is detected, or an uptick in cases happens.

Province says actions will be taken on rapid testing on health orders, but questions on booster shots remain

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province's evolving direction on rapid testing is guided by science, but so is its decision to stay the course on third doses. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The more things change in the pandemic, the more things stay the same in British Columbia's response.

"In general in B.C., we follow the science," said Health Minister Adrian Dix, during a Wednesday press conference where he hinted at what the province's strategy in dealing with the Omicron variant would look like in the coming weeks. 

More rapid testing opportunities? A new strategy will be announced next Tuesday, Dix said. 

New public orders on large gatherings, particularly things like concerts and professional sport events? 

"The issue of capacity limits, the issue of the vaccine card … those issues are all under active consideration by public health, and we'll have more to say about that soon," he said. 

In other words, changes are being considered in the face of a new wave with a new variant, with cases up more than 25 per cent in a week in B.C., and record high case counts in several countries where Omicron has taken hold.

But those changes aren't happening immediately, despite the now common cycle of some pushing for large changes to B.C.'s response as soon as a new variant of concern is detected or an uptick in cases happens.

And most of those people, like Dix, also believe they're guided by "the science."

Ontario accelerates third shots

Take third vaccine shots.

On Thursday, Ontario announced everyone 18 or older could start booking their third vaccine dose starting Monday, while shortening the minimum interval between second and third doses from six to three months. 

It comes two weeks after the United Kingdom made a similar decision, with increasing evidence that third doses are particularly helpful given Omicron's greater ability to partially evade immunity from two doses. 

"I would like to see the province take on the urgency of the situation here, and move things ahead as fast as possible," said Daniel Coombs, head of the University of British Columbia's mathematics department and a member of the B.C. COVID-19 modelling group. 

"I think it would be nice to see that the province is ready to respond quickly when case counts start to really, really accelerate."

So is B.C. not following "the science"?

"We've been doing very well," argued Dix, pointing out the province had accelerated third shots for the clinically vulnerable, had given a greater percentage of its population a third shot in comparison to Ontario, and that a six-month interval has been recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

"The science says ... at least a six-month interval for older people."

'The situation is evolving'

But as South Asian COVID Task Force member Dr. Navdeep Grewal acknowledged, provincial and federal health officials across Canada have regularly changed their advice based on new information.

"We follow the science, we follow the evidence, we follow the data, and sometimes that means we do change our mind midway," she said. 

Grewal, a family physician, said doctors she knows are having the same debates as the rest of us: some anxious about gathering with family during the holidays, some going ahead with travel or events long planned in expectation of the pandemic being "safe" by now. 

"I think everybody feels very differently about what their risk assessment is, depending on who they live with, who they interact with, whether they have elderly parents or young children in their home."

The one thing virtually everyone is doing is waiting for more data on the health outcomes of Omicron: there are initial signs of symptoms being milder than Delta for many, but it is still hard to forecast what it could mean for hospitalizations in the best case scenario, given how transmissible it is. 

"The situation is evolving," said Dix.

"We can't be certain about what the situation will be in two weeks from now, but it's unlikely it will be better than it is today."

Two more weeks, and we'll know more information, as British Columbians attempt to interpret guidance for holiday plans.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.