British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. aims for another 'maintenance phase' of the pandemic that it hopes goes better than the first

What happens when talking about the pandemic every day stops becoming a central point of political life? British Columbia is probably about to find out. 

Most restrictions look poised to lapse next week. Here’s why the government is confident

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announces B.C.'s reopening strategy on May 25, 2021. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

What happens when talking about the pandemic every day stops being a central point of political life?

British Columbia is probably about to find out. 

Next week, the province is expected to move to Step 3 in its reopening plan, which would remove most restrictions on gatherings, allow nightclubs and casinos to reopen and remove the public health order requiring masks in public indoor settings. 

It comes after the province reduced the number of live briefings on the pandemic to just once a week. Revoking the province's official state of emergency may soon follow. 

COVID-19 will still be a part of people's lives for a long time to come, but the province believes the pandemic can be contained in a quieter and less restrictive way than the past. 

Like most bets in the pandemic, it will take some time to determine if B.C.'s officials are right — and if they've learned from the mistakes of the past.   

Metrics still going down

On the first question of whether it's appropriate for the government to dial back its focus, the initial response from most observers has been cautiously optimistic.

"I think it's a reasonable time to take a bit of a breather," said Dr. Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease specialist at B.C. Children's Hospital.

"I think as long as transparency is there, namely data is released, vaccines [numbers] are released and geographic information is out there... we'll be in a place where we can make informed decisions."

At the moment, those numbers are encouraging for B.C. The rolling average of cases per day is 74, its lowest point since August 15, 2020, nearly 80 per cent of adults have gotten at least one vaccine dose (with enough supply to get a majority of adults fully vaccinated in a matter of weeks), and large outbreaks can now be measured in the dozens of cases, often in smaller communities.

"There's an ongoing virus hanging around in our communities, and immunization continues to be key in managing that, said Dr. Sue Pollock, interim chief medical officer for Interior Health. 

"Week to week, depending on the localized activity, we'll see some variability in which communities are highlighted."

'We'll see what happens'

In other words, the province accepts there will be occasional small outbreaks, particularly in the Interior and North, particularly in places where fewer people have been vaccinated.  

But so long as hospitalizations continue to decline and vaccines prevent the worst health outcomes for people who do get infected, the province believes it can remove most restrictions indefinitely. 

"Immunization does stop transmission of this virus. It means it's not going to spread widely to everyone in a way that it did even a few months ago," said chief health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry this week.

At the same time, immunization isn't a silver bullet, particularly when you factor in the Delta variant: cases are increasing in the two large countries with comparable first dose vaccination rates to B.C. 

The United Kingdom has gone from 2,000 cases a day to more than 10,000 over the past month. Israel, which had kept daily cases in single digits for two months, has seen exponential growth in the last week, and reinstated its orders on mandatory mask wearing indoors as a result. 

In both countries, the role of the variant and the danger it poses to vaccinated and unvaccinated, young and old, is being studied. 

That research will help guide B.C.'s decision making if cases once again rise here. In the meantime, the province focuses on pushing up the number of people with first doses, bit by bit.  

"We thankfully have very low levels of COVID right now, so that gives us some time," said Dr. Henry. 

Of course, B.C. had very low levels last summer. Six months of not being able to gather with friends or family soon followed. 

"If numbers go up, or there's something different with variants circulating, the government will have to pivot," said Murthy.

"Hopefully we don't see that surge in the coming weeks and months, but we'll see what happens."

With files from Daybreak North and The Early Edition