Thursday, May 26, 2022

BC in the Omicron era: Five things that have changed … and five that haven’t

With Omicron having taken over as the dominant COVID-19 variant, public health guidelines on protecting yourself and your loved ones have evolved

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As BC nears the two-year anniversary of the province’s first detected case of COVID-19 , and with Omicron having taken over as the dominant variant, the provincial health officer says public health guidelines and measures to protect ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic have “evolved “

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“We do continue to see a gradual decline in our case rates over time and a leveling off of the test positivity,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry in a briefing Tuesday.

Even with that clear “downward trend,” however, hospitalizations remain at record levels in BC, and Henry said COVID-19 continues to put a strain on our health-care resources.

“As the pandemic evolves and Omicron brings these new challenges, we have evolved our pandemic response,” said Henry.

Here are five things that have changed about public health advice, and five that remain the same.

Rapid tests for COVID-19 have become a more effective tool than PCR tests with the short incubation period of Omicron.
Rapid tests for COVID-19 have become a more effective tool than PCR tests with the short incubation period of Omicron. Photo by Francis Georgian ,PNG

FIVE THINGS THAT HAVE CHANGED

1. Forget about contact tracing

Omicron has a much shorter incubation period than earlier variants, perhaps a couple days as opposed to five or six for Alpha and Delta. This means that by the time you develop symptoms and/or get tested, you’ve likely already exposed others to the virus.

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That means tracking and tracing contacts has become “much more difficult,” said Henry.

It also means the other protections — staying home when sick, wearing masks, washing your hands, limiting social interactions — are as important as ever.

2. Tests other than rapid ones aren’t much help either

Testing has also been reined in to focus on those most at risk or those in high-risk settings such as health care.

Because of the delay in getting PCR test results, rapid tests are much more relevant to keeping those settings safe, and are being distributed to care homes, assisted living, health-care settings, schools, remote and Indigenous communities and workplaces with potential outbreaks in a targeted way.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said BC had an inventory of more than two million rapid tests as of Tuesday and millions more on the way by the middle of February, though not all are suitable for distribution to individuals.

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3. Time to reconnect with youth sports and school

As of Feb. 1, youth sports and full-fledged tournaments can resume. Henry said health officials have been working with organizers and viaSport BC to make sure they can be held safely.

Because of higher risk factors, adult tournaments remain paused, though gyms and fitness studios have reopened with capacity limits.

Similarly, BC’s post-secondary schools are steadily moving back to in-person classes, not without some trepidation from student groups and others.

“We know that young people have been so differentially affected by this pandemic, and that these on-campus interactions and learning is so important for their growth, for their development, for the research and all of the bright minds that we need to stimulate in our universities and colleges.”

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She said the return to campuses is possible because of a high rate of vaccination among students and staff.

Rapid tests will be part of the plan to keep an eye out for outbreaks in the schools.

4. Kids 5-11 ‘should’ get their vaccines

The national advisory committee on immunization has strengthened its recommendation around having children five to 11 years old getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Henry said earlier guidance was that kids in that age group “may” get a vaccine, but real-world studies of millions of children have shown that they are both safe and effective in boosting immunity.

Now the advisory committee is saying children “should” get their vaccines to protect themselves and others.

5. The end of heavy measures is in sight

Health-care workers and facilities are still seeing huge strains and challenges, and the number of staff getting sick due to COVID-19 and missing work remains problematic.

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But Henry said there are clear signs that we can look forward to fewer cases over time and a gradual decline in restrictions on our daily lives.

“I do believe we will have a gentler summer, that we will get to a place where we no longer need many of the measures and restrictions that we have in place right now.”

Vaccination against COVID-19 is not as robust a defense with the Omicron variant, but it remains the best defense we have against infection, severe illness and infecting others.
Vaccination against COVID-19 is not as robust a defense with the Omicron variant, but it remains the best defense we have against infection, severe illness and infecting others. Photo by Francis Georgian ,PNG

FIVE THINGS THAT HAVEN’T CHANGED

1. Vaccination is still your best defense

Much has been made among vaccine skeptics about the high rate of infection among the fully vaccinated. But Henry notes they continue to make a “tremendous difference” in decreasing your risk of both infection and severe illness.

Against Omicron specifically, your risk of infection drops about 50 to 60 per cent with vaccination, less than the earlier variants but still a significant level of protection.

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The recent data “shows us the effectiveness of vaccines and the importance of vaccines in protecting people from severe illness… (And) the booster doses also protect against infection, even with Omicron.”

2. Elderly and immuno-compromised at biggest risk

While Omicron is notably milder than previous variants, especially Delta, it remains a major risk for older and immuno-compromised people. So all of us have to mitigate the risk to them by continuing to follow health rules.

“We need to follow the public health orders, so that we reduce the risk to everyone,” said Henry. “Because we all have someone in our circle — whether it’s family, whether it’s in our social contacts, at work — who is immune compromised, who’s older, who may have that extra risk right now when there’s so much of this virus still circulating. “

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People in these highly vulnerable groups will be offered another booster six months from their last dose.

Dix noted Tuesday, though, that nearly 50,000 of those over the age of 70 who have received invitations for a booster have yet to book appointments, and warned they remain at higher risk of hospitalization if they catch COVID.

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Meanwhile, health officials are working with long-term care homes to balance the need for restrictions to manage the risk of outbreaks and the need for social visits and support for residents.

3. Vaccine cards here until June 30

The BC Vaccine Card program will continue for now. It’s “designed to address and mitigate those risks that allow us to keep certain businesses and activities open through the period of the pandemic,” said Henry.

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She said it remains a helpful tool and will continue until June 30. But she said the program will continually be reviewed, and it could end earlier than that “if we are in a better place.”

Boosters will not be required with the vaccine cards, in part because some remain inligible for them.

4. Masks, distancing and limited contacts still help

Even with vaccines reducing the risk, the basic public health advice remains much the same as the early days of the pandemic:

• Wear the highest-quality mask you can when in proximity with others.

• Continue to social distance as much as possible.

• Limit the size of your social gatherings, and your contact with others especially in close quarters.

• Wash your hands frequently.

5. Limits on gatherings remain in place

For now, organized events such as weddings are still not allowed in BC Henry noted weddings in particular remain risky not so much because of the ceremonies but because of the socializing that typically follows.

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Here are the current restrictions:

• Indoor gatherings are limited to your family plus 10 people or one other household, and everyone over 12 must be fully vaccinated.

• Outdoor organized gatherings such as sports events are limited to 5,000 people or 50 per cent capacity, whichever is higher (so 15,000 people can attend an event with a 30,000 seating capacity).

• Indoor events like concerts, sports and lectures or presentations are also limited to 50 per cent no matter the size.

jruttle@postmedia.com


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