COVID-19: Five ways B.C.’s fourth wave is different than the others

British Columbia’s latest wave of COVID-19 infection is very different to the first three waves

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British Columbia is now in its fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It began at the end of the first week of July after tough restrictions and high vaccination rates had managed to beat the third wave down.

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Roughly speaking, the first wave was weak and ran through March and April 2020, the second wave was stronger and ran from October 2020 to February 2021. The third wave was the strongest — with average cases peaking at 1,130 a day with more than 10,000 active cases in mid-April.

Case numbers are again rising steadily in B.C., as are active cases, though there have not been as many deaths. There were 464 cases of COVID-19 reported last Friday with 2,411 active cases.

Here’s a look at how the fourth wave is different from the earlier waves of infection in our province.

Interior Health driving the fourth wave of infection

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in B.C. in March 2020, the cases were concentrated in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and during the third wave were driven by cases from Fraser Health (especially the northern parts of Surrey).

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During the fourth wave the majority of cases (59 per cent last Friday) were in Interior Health — in particular the Central Okanagan region including Kelowna. This is despite Interior Health being less than half the size of Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health and roughly the same size as Island Health — that accounted for around six per cent of cases last Friday.

As of last Friday, almost half of all cases in intensive care were in Interior Health hospitals, while 56 per cent of all active cases in the province are in that region.

It is younger people now who are spreading the infection

In her most recent press conference, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the fourth wave of transmission was being spread mostly among people aged 20-40.

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“We know that many people in this age group were the last to access vaccine and for many of them case counts had come down and it may not have been a priority with the many different things people have going on in their lives,” Henry said, adding most of the disease was spreading at social events that were permitted when the third round of restrictions were lifted.

Some of those restrictions have now been reintroduced in Interior Health, including the closing of pubs and nightclubs and mandatory mask wearing in indoor public spaces.

The first two stages of the pandemic were driven by older age groups, in particular people living in assisted living and care homes who also took the brunt of the pandemic’s death toll.

We have vaccine and a high vaccination rate in most places

The first two waves of infection occurred as scientists across the world frantically developed vaccines. The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines proved to be the most effective and were introduced in Canada in late December and played a key role in beating down the third wave. As of last Friday, across B.C. 68.9 per cent of all eligible people (aged 12 and over) had received the double dose of vaccine needed to maximize immunity.

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However, that rate differs according to health region, with Interior Health and Northern Health having lower rates. For example, the Central Okanagan rate is 63 per cent, while it’s 57 per cent in Nelson.

So the fourth wave is different in that it is occurring despite world-leading vaccination rates in B.C .

It’s a different strain of the disease now driving the fourth wave in B.C.

The first strain of COVID-19 that emerged from Wuhan, China, in late 2019 is now simply called the “wild” virus and has mutated in thousands and thousands of ways — some of which have been classified by the World Health Organization as “variants of concern.” These variants have also been renamed to make the names easier to digest and to remove the stigma attached to where they came from. For example, the U.K. variant became known as the B.1.1.7 variant and is now called the Alpha variant.

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It was the Alpha variant that began taking a foothold in B.C. early in 2021. However, at around the same time a new variant emerged in India that was quickly identified as being more contagious than the others and in the Interior Health region now accounts for 80 per cent of cases. It is called the Delta variant and is driving the fourth wave.

Travel restrictions are being lifted and things are returning to normal

The first three waves of infection occurred during times of varying levels of restrictions, but in particular tough rules around travel. The latest wave is emerging as travel restrictions are being lifted. As of Monday, the federal government has ruled than any American citizen or permanent resident can cross into Canada without any quarantine as long as they are fully vaccinated.

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Curiously, there is one exception to this rule — applicable to people who live in Point Roberts (Wash.), Hyder (Alaska) and Northwest Angle (Minn.) — that allows unvaccinated Americans to enter their nearest Canadian community “to carry out everyday functions” but not travel beyond that community.

These three locations are all unique — for example, it’s impossible to get to Point Roberts without passing through Canada.

In B.C., Dr. Henry has set Sept 7 as the date all restrictions will be lifted, but that can be changed if the fourth wave does not subside.

dcarrigg@postmedia.com


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