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Calls for stricter action in B.C. with COVID-19 variants projected to climb into May

A woman wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past a billboard from the Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, April 8, 2021. A math modelling expert says British Columbia is on track to see COVID-19 cases involving variants of concern start levelling off in late May, but he says stronger restrictions could improve the situation sooner. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
April 09, 2021 - 4:45 PM

VANCOUVER - British Columbia is on track to see COVID-19 cases involving variants of concern continue to rise until late May, a math modelling expert said, but stronger restrictions could improve the situation sooner.

Jens von Bergmann said based on current vaccination projections, the number of new variant cases should carry on climbing into next month, while those involving the original strains were already flatlining when new restrictions were introduced.

It's too early to know the effectiveness of the latest public health restrictions on indoor dining and group fitness, although those measures could bump up that timeline by a week or two, he added.

However, von Bergmann also warned that data from other analysts suggest hospitalizations could spike before then, prompting officials to introduce stricter measures in the interim.

The province has often taken a "wait and see" approach when early action is more important for prevention, he said.

B.C. announced a new order Thursday to expedite temporary workplace closures when there is transmission between three or more employees, as it set a daily record of 1,293 new positive cases.

The province reported 1,262 new cases Friday, making it the second-highest daily total after the record set the previous day.

There were 9,574 active cases, including 332 people in hospital and 102 in intensive care.

Two more people have died from COVID-19, putting the death toll in B.C. at 1,495.

"It just puts us on a course where things can go wrong really easily," von Bergmann said.

"This kind of waiting, it just means cases can grow more and more."

His projections are based on an assumption that about 30 per cent of British Columbians will have a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine that will have taken effect by May 15.

The province said Friday that just over one million doses of vaccine have been administered to date, mostly first doses.

Von Bergmann said there's a false narrative that more contagious variants are "replacing" cases of the original strain, when in fact they are occurring alongside them.

"Really we should think of these as two separate pandemics added together," he said.

The Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has previously defended the province's approach.

On Thursday, she announced a change in screening strategy so that every person who tests positive for COVID-19 will be treated as though they have one of the highly transmissible variants.

However, she said the tactics for reducing infections, such as hand washing and reducing contacts, remain the same regardless of whether a case involves a variant or not.

Much the recent transmission is being driven by social interactions and amplified in work places, she said.

Dean Karlen, a professor of physics at the University of Victoria who has analyzed COVID-19 models over the past year, said the so-called "race" between vaccinations and variants is over.

The variants won when they started to become dominant before vaccinations were widespread, he said.

He said that means it's time to focus on reducing transmission in parallel with ramping up vaccinations.

"Clearly, we still want to push vaccines as much as possible but we're going to have to help those vaccines a lot through personal behaviour and reduction in transmission," he said.

Karlen said he believes the current restrictions will result in somewhere between a two and four per cent decrease in the growth rate.

"None of those is really a good outcome. The best perhaps would be flattening this curve, having a constant number of infections per day," he said.

A four per cent decrease would see new cases and hospitalizations stagnate, while a two per cent decrease would see both continue to rise into late May, his graphs show.

The vaccination program is having a positive impact and is factored into that equation. Without it, he said he believes the viral spread would be about two per cent faster per day.

"The coming months are going to be challenging not just for B.C., but for the five provinces from B.C. to Quebec," he said.

The vaccines offer a ray of hope but health restrictions must be maintained to get through this wave, he said.

"It's not going to be easy."

Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a joint statement Friday it's important to follow all public health orders because B.C. is not yet protected.

“Bending the rules only delays our ability to put the pandemic behind us."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2021.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2021
The Canadian Press

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