Officials warn against large holiday parties after 44 cases of omicron variant confirmed in B.C.
Still 'a lot of uncertainty' around variant's potential effects on B.C.'s infection curve, Henry says
Officials are warning people to avoid large parties over the holidays after 44 cases of the fast-spreading omicron variant were confirmed in B.C., with more expected in coming days.
Health officials on Tuesday said at least one case of the variant has been found in every health authority across the province, though the majority of cases are in the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions.
"We have transmission in the community now and we are learning more and more from the global community about what that means," Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during a news conference.
New modelling data released Tuesday suggested a worst-case scenario involving omicron would be 2,000 new cases per day by the end of the month — and a best-case scenario of 1,000 a day by mid-January.
Henry said projections aren't written in stone as there is still "a lot of uncertainty" about how omicron will affect cases and hospitalization rates in B.C. One outstanding question is how virulent omicron is compared to past variants, like alpha and delta.
"There is consensus that it spreads faster than delta ... but how much more is challenging to know," she said. "But what we do know is if cases go up, the percentage of people needing hospital care goes up."
Henry said Tuesday there are no plans to bring in new restrictions before Christmas, but told people not to gather with those who are not vaccinated or strangers whose vaccination status isn't clear.
"We have a new player in the field ... we don't want to lose the gains that we've made," she said.
"We need to be thoughtful about how we approach these holidays and more than ever need to be prudent."
Good masks, proper ventilation and physical distancing remain important, Henry added.
Officials said 37 of the variant cases were among people who had been vaccinated, but none had to be hospitalized.
Twenty of the cases involved people who had recently travelled internationally to countries including Egypt, Germany, Iran, Portugal, Nigeria, South Africa and the United States.
In Island Health, the majority of omicron cases are linked to an outbreak among students at the University of Victoria.
Prime minister meets with premiers
At the national level, Canada's chief public health officer said Tuesday there is "great spread potential" with omicron and the situation in Canada is a "few days or maybe a week" behind the U.K. — where British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the caseload is doubling every two or three days as the variant takes hold.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Canadian premiers on Tuesday afternoon. Other high-level conversations are taking place about implementing more travel restrictions in light of rising case numbers in the country, CBC News confirmed Tuesday.
Officials in B.C. expect there will be more local cases of omicron identified as lab sequencing continues.
"The problem with omicron is it transmits so quickly and it transmits well among vaccinated individuals and that means we're seeing skyrocketing cases where omicron is established, in country after country," said Sally Otto, a modelling expert and evolutionary biology professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Free at-home rapid tests not expected until January
Otto said modelling suggests a faster rollout of booster shots in December would help prevent a spike in cases in January.
Advocates are also calling on the provincial government to make rapid antigen tests more widely available in B.C. to slow the spread of the virus. In other jurisdictions, including other Canadian provinces and the U.K., the tests are free for anyone who wants them.
Currently, the only way the general public in B.C. can access rapid antigen testing is to buy the tests online.
Health officials said Tuesday the province won't likely roll out free at-home rapid tests before January.
The bulk of rapid tests that B.C. already has on hand — about 1.3 million — must be administered by a medical professional using a special machine. The remainder is being distributed strategically due to limited supply.
"Our testing strategy has been different from those used in other provinces all along,'' Henry said, adding B.C. has been focused on "making sure we get the right person the right test at the right time.''
Henry said the province is not adjusting its existing strategy for boosters, which was designed to target older people first as they were more likely to have severe breakthrough cases of COVID-19.
The province says more than 350 pharmacies in 80 communities throughout B.C. are administering vaccines. Another 700 are expected to join the program by mid-January.
Eventually, the province says, pharmacies will administer the majority of booster shots for eligible British Columbians.
Cases rising on Vancouver Island
New infection modelling released Tuesday also showed overall cases of COVID-19 are ticking upward on Vancouver Island. The case counts are driven by the outbreak at UVic and a religious gathering in the northern part of the island.
The UVic outbreak had 124 total cases as of Monday, four of which were the omicron variant. The outbreak has been linked to off-campus social events and a national varsity rugby tournament.
Henry said several members of the men's rugby team at the university were infected at the national championship at Queen's University in Ontario, which ran for two days in late November.
"We have a number of more tests [for team members] in the hopper for whole genome sequencing, so I expect more [cases]," she said.
B.C. confirmed 1,129 new cases of COVID-19 in B.C. over the weekend. A total of 185 people were in hospital as of Monday, with 72 in intensive care.
On Tuesday, Henry confirmed rising cases mean B.C.'s vaccine card will remain in place longer than January as originally expected.
The province said 1,715 people uploaded questionable proof-of-vaccine to try and get their vaccine card. Anyone suspected of uploading fraudulent records will receive a letter from the province and be reported to police, a statement read.
Unvaccinated people 50 times more likely to need ICU
The data on overall cases of COVID-19 said unvaccinated people were seven times more likely to catch COVID-19 from November to December than fully vaccinated people.
People who are not vaccinated are also 30 times more likely to end up in hospital and 50 times more likely to be admitted to the ICU.
Those who have tested positive for omicron were between five and 72 years old.
The breakdown of omicron cases in B.C. by health authority is as follows:
- 24 in Fraser Health.
- 11 in Vancouver Coastal Health.
- Five in Vancouver Island Health.
- Three in Interior Health.
- One in Northern Health.
With files from Yvette Brend and The Canadian Press