British Columbia·Analysis

As B.C. faces a potential 3rd wave, it's unclear if the province will learn the lessons of the second one

With 737 new COVID-19 cases on Friday — the highest number since early January — we could be seeing history repeat itself.

Government is betting on mass vaccinations, warmer weather to slow COVID-19 transmission

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks at a news conference on COVID-19 vaccination plans in early March. Daily case counts and hospitalizations have all risen since select groups in the general population have been allowed to book vaccinations. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

It was a press conference about B.C.'s pandemic future; how every eligible adult in the province might be vaccinated by Canada Day.

But Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry's most critiqued comment from a briefing on Thursday was likely about the past of B.C.'s coronavirus pandemic.   

She was asked a familiar question about how she decides when to lift restrictions. Yet she decided to use an example of when she did the opposite by introducing our current restrictions in November. 

"We were all … watching things very carefully, and it really was almost over a period of a weekend that we saw such a dramatic increase."

The comment left the impression that the events of one weekend triggered new restrictions.

Not exactly. Data provided by the government showed daily cases in B.C. tripled in July, tripled in August, and after being static in September, tripled again in October, and were on their way to tripling in November before serious restrictions were put in place. 

With 737 new cases on Friday — the highest number since early January — we could be seeing history repeat itself.   

Vaccines first, new case counts second

For the moment, the focus from the government is on the growing number of people getting vaccinated. That rose from less than 10,000 a day over the weekend to nearly 25,000 on Thursday. 

It's what the government highlights every day, in every press release, at every press conference. 

The rise in case counts that has been clear for several weeks? Not so much.  

"I'm confident that we're on the right track," said Premier John Horgan on Wednesday, when asked by CBC News about the rise in hospitalizations. 

"It has been a slow increase, and as we start to vaccinate more, we'll see a reduction in caseloads, and hopefully a reduction in hospitalizations as well."  

Again, not exactly. Hospitalizations are up 35 per cent in the last month, critical care cases up 42 per cent, and active cases in the Lower Mainland are up 68 per cent since the beginning of February. 

The number of variants is growing, without sufficient data to know how quickly, and the province has not made any regulations tougher or increased enforcement in months. 

Horgan's scenario assumes that B.C. will see a sharp decline in transmission over the spring as seniors and those at highest risk to spread the virus are vaccinated. That could allow for a summer relatively free of restrictions, even if 20 to 30 per cent of people choose not to get vaccinated. 

But it's a hope and a bet, and as has been the case throughout the pandemic, it can't be fully judged for at least another two weeks.

How are we feeling?

In the meantime, there are plenty of people with serious mental health concerns brought on by stress and anxiety.

"It's challenging. It's been a really tough year," said Dr. Emily Jenkins, lead researcher of a nationwide survey by the Canadian Mental Health Association on the pandemic. 

She said around 40 per cent of Canadians had reported a deterioration in their mental health since the beginning of the pandemic, and she said even if things do rapidly improve in B.C., that won't necessarily mean a quick improvement in people's moods. 

"That's going to take time and investment to heal, and we really need to be working intentionally to rebuild," she said.

Simon Fraser University psychology professor Lara Aknin is a member of a COVID-19 mental health task force for the medical journal The Lancet. Based on research from last summer, she says it's reasonable to expect people's mental health might improve once again if restrictions are lifted. 

And she says there's a fair amount of research showing people's life satisfaction has remained relatively stable through the pandemic. 

But given where B.C. currently sits, she doesn't fault people for having difficulty making sense of the short term. 

"The numbers have been quite grim … now is an interesting time, because there seemed to be another wave of lockdown in many places, second and third waves and new variants emerging," she said.  

"This uncertainty can be quite paralyzing."

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