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B.C. set to lift more COVID-19 restrictions, but experts urge caution amid Delta concerns

Last Updated Jun 14, 2021 at 6:25 am PDT

FILE -- Specimens to be tested for COVID-19 are seen at a lab, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

B.C. expected to announce at 10:30 a.m. Monday further easing of restrictions

Experts urge caution as B.C. readies to enter second phase of its restart plan, noting Delta variant is one to watch

'My biggest concern is that people will over-interpret their new-found freedoms,' says local expert

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – B.C. Premier John Horgan and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry are expected to announce Monday morning that the province will move to phase two of its plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday.

They’re set to speak at 10:30 a.m., joined by the jobs and tourism ministers.

However, with the easing of health measures comes concern from the medical community, with one expert urging British Columbians not to push things too far.

Dr. Brian Conway, the medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, says the people he’s been hearing from are enthusiastic, bordering on giddy. But he stresses this is not the end of the pandemic.

“My biggest concern is that people will over-interpret their new-found freedoms and go beyond what is being permitted. And we’re not talking 100 per cent back to normal, it’s going to be conceptually 70 to 80 per cent of normal,” he explained, adding that means we still need to be cautious about the virus and keep hitting vaccination targets for the next phases of reopening, set to happen as early as July 1 and early September.

“This is not the end. This is kind of another step — a positive step — for us. And as new rules are announced, it won’t be back to the full new normal.”

B.C.’s restart plan is heavily reliant on vaccination rates increasing, and daily case counts and hospitalizations decreasing.

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The next phase, which B.C.’s top doctor had said would begin no earlier than June 15, includes easing restrictions around gathering sizes and a lifting of travel restrictions. The province’s mask mandate, business safety protocols, and physical distancing measures are to remain in place, according to the plan.

The province’s daily case counts continue to trend downward. Conway notes in addition to new infections being down, there are also no new hotpots, and the vaccination program is going well.

He says the reproductive rate of the virus — the R0 — is “significantly below one,” which is a good thing.

“That means that it will be much easier to control transmission if we do find new cases. So I think Dr. Henry is right, even if there is an increase in the number of cases, they won’t spread very far and the public health resources will be available to help control transmission even more. So all of that also points in the right direction,” Conway explained.

“We could see an increase but because the vaccination rate is so high … that protects us,” he added, noting Canada is leading the way globally when it comes to the number of people who’ve received at least one shot.

The latest provincial modelling, released on Thursday, June 10, suggests B.C. could see close to zero new daily COVID-19 cases by September if our interactions stay on the low side and vaccination rates continue to remain high.

But even if case numbers rise a bit, Henry has said we’ve reached a point in the pandemic where a slight increase in cases is manageable.

Concerns over variants continue as B.C. readies for next restart phase

While daily case counts are trending in the right direction, there are still variants that experts are wary of.

“Variants is really our big risk. These are new forms of the virus that transmit more easily, and they will cause more severe disease. It’s probably what is delaying the ability of a province like Manitoba to control its outbreak as we speak,” Conway explained, stressing the importance of keeping variants out of the country.

He says as new infections are reported in B.C., it’s vital to determine quickly if they are linked to variants, “because that would be of concern and could lead to public health measures that are targeted to reduce the transmission of the variant.”

His words of caution are echoed by UBC Professor Sarah Otto, an evolutionary biologist.

She notes we saw a similar trend in Britain months ago; daily case counts were dropping, until the Delta variant, which was originally detected in India, started to take hold.

“The types of things we know about Delta is that it does transmit from person to person at a higher rate than our previous variants of concern, what we’re now calling Alpha or B.1.1.7,” she told NEWS 1130. “This is not great, this is what I can say is a double whammy. It’s more transmissible and it appears to be able to infect individuals at a higher rate, especially early on after only one vaccine.”

Given where case counts are in B.C., Otto understands the province’s approach to easing restrictions. However, she hopes there’s a willingness to pull back if required.

She also has concerns about the pace of vaccination slowing down.

“The real protection against this variant, as well as all of the other variants that are going to continue to evolve over the next year while we still have a lot of global cases, our best protection is to have a large fraction of our population vaccinated. And we’ve done great so far, but we’re now seeing it slowing down. So if you’re worried about Delta, you don’t want to go back to Step 1 and you want to go Step 3 next and you haven’t been vaccinated then call. Get your vaccine. Book it,” Otto added.

-With files from Monika Gul