Discarded COVID mask on a street

BC Cuts COVID Restrictions. Critics Say It’s Dangerous

By Moira Wyton, The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

British Columbia will drop its major remaining COVID-19 protective measures Friday despite modelling suggesting a sixth wave could send 100  new people to hospital each day by mid-May.

Provincial health officer  Dr. Bonnie Henry also said today that second booster shots will be  available to older and vulnerable people to boost waning immunity.

The changes come as the BA2 Omicron  sub-variant now accounts for about 75 per cent of cases in B.C. It’s 20  to 30 per cent more transmissible than the original Omicron variant  which ravaged hospitals and sent record numbers of health-care workers  home this winter.

Henry confirmed the BC Vaccine Card program  will end on Friday. People will no longer need to show proof of two  vaccine doses to eat at restaurants, see movies, attend indoor concerts  and sporting events or go to the gym.

Vaccines will also no  longer be required in post-secondary residences, and businesses no  longer need COVID-specific safety plans.

COVID-19 data reporting on cases, hospitalizations and deaths will move from daily to weekly.

The changes, originally announced last  month along with the March 11 end to the mask mandate, come as modelling  suggests another wave of BA2 could push hospitals and health-care  workers to the brink.

“We are in a relatively good place,” Henry  said today. “Hospitalizations and deaths in B.C. continue to decline…  and we continue to see a really low death rate.”

B.C. has seen declines in all these metrics, but those trends have slowed and begun to plateau in recent weeks.

People continue to die of COVID, with 575  people dying in the first three months of 2022. That’s just under  one-fifth of recorded deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.

Test positivity rates among the individuals  eligible for PCR testing have risen from 5.6 per cent on March 20 to  7.3 per cent, and reached 18.4 per cent on Vancouver Island on March 31.

Henry acknowledged “we are likely to see a  slight increase over time in the next two or three months,” but said  B.C.’s high level of protection from vaccines would help temper future  transmission, hospitalizations and deaths.

Experts have warned that the growth of  cases in B.C. depends on how quickly immunity from booster shots wanes  in those most at risk of hospitalization and death. 

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease  Control and Prevention recommended a second booster shot for all adults  over 65 and those older than 50 with chronic conditions.

In B.C., second boosters will be made  available to residents of long-term care and assisted living, as well as  seniors in the community over 70 and Indigenous people over 55 in the  coming weeks. Clinically extremely vulnerable people will also have  access to another shot soon.

While two doses of vaccine provide strong  individual protection against severe illness and death from Omicron in  younger people, boosters significantly reduce infection and  transmission, particularly for people over 70.

But only 59 per cent of the eligible  population in B.C. have received two shots and boosters. Immunity for  many elderly and vulnerable people who received their boosters more than  four months ago is already waning.

When asked by The Tyee why  protective measures like the mask and vaccine mandates were being lifted  when modelling outlined a potentially serious sixth wave, Henry said  high population protection and lowered transmission made it a safe time  to do so.

“There’s no magic time when there will be  zero risk,” she said. “We have been through a very traumatic period of  two years now… we’ve always had to balance those risks.”

Last week, human rights commissioner Kasari Govender published a letter to Henry, asking her to reinstate the mask mandate to protect the most vulnerable.

And members of public health advocacy group Protect Our Province BC have said dropping protections right now is reckless.

“Without focusing our efforts on stopping  viral transmission, we will continue to see wave after wave of COVID-19  infections with the attendant toll it takes on our health-care system,  our citizens and our economy, not to mention the devastation of long  COVID disability each wave leaves behind,” Lyne Filiatrault and Brenda  Hardie, both doctors,  wrote in a recent open letter.

BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau also  criticized Henry and the government’s approach, stating they had failed  to adequately educate British Columbians on the risks and mechanisms of  COVID-19 infections.

“Prince Edward Island and Quebec have both  extended their mask mandates until the end of the month in order to  manage rising cases,” she said in a statement. “It’s clear that the BA2  variant has taken over in B.C., and yet we continue to pretend that we  are somehow going to avoid the impacts we’re seeing elsewhere.”

Henry defended the strategy and said B.C. was in a better position to ease measures than ever before.

“It will be a transition period for all of us,” she said.

Top photo credit: Discarded COVID mask – Photo by Richard Harvey via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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