British Columbia

B.C. identifies 1st case of omicron variant

B.C. has identified its first case of the COVID-19 omicron variant, health officials confirmed Tuesday. 

Infected individual recently travelled to Nigeria and is currently isolating

The COVID-19 omicron variant has been found in B.C., in an individual who recently travelled home from Nigeria. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

B.C. has identified its first case of the COVID-19 omicron variant, health officials confirmed Tuesday. 

The case was found in a person residing in the Fraser Health region, who had recently returned home from travelling in Nigeria. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says that person is isolating. 

Henry says her team has been working with the Public Health Agency of Canada since late last week to identify a further 204 people who had recently travelled to affected countries.  All of those people have been sent for PCR testing and put into isolation, Henry said. 

The omicron variant is notable because it has a large number of mutations that could affect its transmissibility and the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

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Dr. Henry stresses importance of vaccination as omicron variant arrives in B.C.

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B.C.’s provincial health officer said vaccination is still the number one tool to get through the COVID-19 pandemic.

It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged — but that hasn't stopped wary nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa where it was first identified. Those moves have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has cautioned against them, noting their limited effect.

Canada has expanded the number of countries with travel restrictions to 10.

Dr. Srinivas Murthy, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of British Columbia said it's more important that other public health measures be kept up. 

"The border is only one thing we have to protect Canadians," Murthy said. "We have testing internal to our country. We have better contact tracing. We have all of our isolation policies. If we are not really implementing the standards of public health, relying on the border to protect us is probably a bit short-sighted."

On Tuesday, the federal government announced incoming air travellers from all countries except the United States will be required to take COVID-19 tests when arriving in Canada, regardless of their vaccination status. Incoming travellers will have to self-isolate until they receive results of the test.

The omicron variant has also been found in Alberta, Quebec and Ontario.

Much is still not known about the variant — though the WHO warned that the global risk from the variant is "very high" and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.

Henry said rapid whole genome sequencing will continue for positive COVID-19 cases in international travellers, to identify any further cases of the omicron variant.

"We can be confident that we're not seeing widespread transmission of this variant in B.C., yet," Henry said. 

She said it's inevitable that we will see more omicron cases. She reminded British Columbians to continue wearing masks and limiting gathering sizes to minimize the transmission of this new variant and other strains of COVID-19, particularly as the holiday season ramps up.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that Canada is considering new measures to slow the variant's spread.

Restrictions updated

Regional restrictions in Interior Health will be removed as of Tuesday night, Henry said, due to a decrease in transmission in that part of the province. 

Interior Health will still need to follow provincial health guidelines. 

Additionally, the current restrictions in Northern Health will now expire on Jan. 31, 2022. Those restrictions include the closure of bars and nightclubs,  an order restaurants stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m.,  and no in-person worship services, as well as limitations on gatherings.

Restrictions that were previously in place for parts of Northern Health will now apply to the entire Northern Health region.

The restrictions in place for the Fraser Health East region will remain in place.

Starting Tuesday, worship services in B.C. (other than in Northern Health) must be limited to 50 per cent of capacity unless all participants are fully vaccinated. If they are all fully vaccinated, 100 per cent capacity will be allowed.

Participants attending worship services must wear a mask during services, unless eating or drinking is part of the ceremony. Leaders may remove them if they are distancing from others. 

Everyone in B.C., five years and older, is required to wear a mask in indoor public spaces. 

"This will become more and more important, and we've seen that around the world as people are dealing with this potentially increased-transmissibility variant," Henry said.

"The days are darker, and colder and shorter, and we're spending more and more time indoors where this virus continues to spread more easily."

For more information about provincial and regional COVID-19 restrictions, visit the B.C., government's list.

With files from Bridgette Watson, On The Coast, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press