Amidst another extraordinary pandemic press conference, to address another unprecedented turn of events, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry managed to drop even more astonishing news: The Omicron variant is moving so quickly, that all British Columbians are going to be exposed to it eventually, no matter the restrictions.
“We know that it is inevitable now that most of us in the province will be exposed at some point,” Dr. Henry said at her Dec. 21 briefing.
“The way this strain of the virus is being transmitted in communities across the province… it's very likely that all of us will have exposure to it. How it affects us depends on our own actions and what we are doing.”
It was a sobering message in an otherwise downright depressing press conference. The best we can all do at this point is to get vaccinated and manage our risk, so that when we’re exposed to Omicron we either don’t catch it immediately or, hopefully, get a milder reaction.
"Most of us in the province will be exposed at some point,” Dr. Henry said.
BC on Dec. 23 will revert back to many of the measures it used during the “circuit breaker” this fall - six-person table limits at restaurants; 50 per cent capacity limits at movie theatres, concerts and sporting events; gym closures; household limits of 10 people; and a ban on organized social events like Christmas parties and wedding receptions.
The changes brought the usual criticism from some experts who feel BC has been too slow and too cautious in its response. Omicron has been a wave that’s swept across the world, with other countries signaling weeks ago, and other provinces days ago, that the threat of rapid expansion was worse than predicted.
Nonetheless, Dr. Henry admitted even she was taken by surprise by the sheer explosive growth already seen in BC.
“The rapidity with which it has replaced Delta around the world has been shocking to many of us who’ve been following this for a long time,” she said.
Provincial modelling indicated BC could be at 2,000 cases a day by the end of December, with enough hospitalizations to overwhelm the province’s health care system by the second week of January. In the best case scenario, modelling indicated BC would hit 1,000 cases a day by mid-January. It blew over that target with more than 1,300 cases on Dec. 21.
The missed marks have made it jarring to follow BC’s COVID briefings.
Only four days prior to the restrictions being announced, Dr. Henry was arguing Omicron could still be contained with existing measures, or at least may not turn out to lead to a rapid growth in hospitalizations. It turned out to be an optimistic forecast.
“Over this past weekend, it's become clear that our best case scenario about how Omicron might be different in terms of severity, are looking less and less likely,” she said.
“We have seen an increase in hospitalization in places like the UK that are ahead of us in terms of transmission of Omicron, and more recently and closer to home we've seen this as well in Quebec, which is very concerning.
“We are seeing the replacement of Omicron from Delta and we are also seeing what we call explosive outbreaks.”
Still, as much as Dr. Henry admitted to being caught by surprise at the ferocity of Omicron’s expansion, neither she nor Health Minister Adrian Dix would budge much on their positions on booster doses or rapid tests.
Only four days prior, Dr. Henry was arguing Omicron could still be contained with existing measures. It turned out to be an optimistic forecast.
Dix attempted to explain why both are being “accelerated” but the message fell flat. Other provinces are doing much more than BC, including Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec, which have lowered the intervals for booster doses from six months and are pushing out millions of free rapid tests to the public for use during the holidays.
BC is doing neither.
Dix continued to insist that focusing booster doses on age and vulnerability is a better move than simply throwing open the doors for anyone who wants a dose. Henry argued that the six-month interval is scientifically the best timeline to achieve the strongest immune response.
Both say preserving rapid tests for targeted use, in long-term care homes among other places, is much more valuable than giving tests away to people who have no symptoms to repeatedly test themselves. BC won’t even have enough rapid tests to make a meaningful public distribution effort until mid-January at the earliest.
All those arguments may be true. But it's increasingly hard to imagine how that’s so, when the rest of the country and the rest of the world moves in a different direction. Either BC alone has figured out the science behind limiting use of rapid tests and confining booster doses to six months, or it is quite simply on the wrong track and unwilling to admit so.
Regardless, we are where we are. Christmas isn’t cancelled, but it’s also not going to look anything like normal.
What’s worse, we’re on track to start 2022 in a more worrying position than we saw at any point in 2021.
Either BC alone has figured out the science behind limiting use of rapid tests and confining booster doses to six months, or it is quite simply on the wrong track and unwilling to admit so.
Exactly how bad the new year begins will depend on how many people actually follow the new public health restrictions over the holidays. There remains no ban on travelling over the holidays, and you’re still allowed to gather with up to 10 people in a household as long as they are all vaccinated.
“COVID is one of those things that we need to consider, but we also I know need to spend time to support family members, friends, close friends who have been going through very difficult times,” said Henry. “So I trust that people in BC can make those judgments.”
We’ll see who is actually listening, and willing to follow those rules, when we get our next public update from the province after Christmas.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.