COVID-19: Omicron could spike infections to highest numbers B.C. has seen

The unwelcome arrival of the variant means a pandemic-weary public needs to follow precautions as they get together for holiday gatherings.

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COVID-19’s Omicron variant is so transmissible, by early January, it could replicate to the highest infection rates British Columbia has seen during the pandemic, according to modelling experts.

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B.C. had only identified 10 Omicron cases as of Friday, but a “skyrocketing rate of increase” in Ontario, the United Kingdom, Denmark and other European countries “does not portend well,” said UBC modelling expert Sarah Otto, just as socialization-starved British Columbians contemplate holiday gatherings.

In the U.K., the country recorded its first death from the variant Monday and Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised booster vaccines to everyone over 18 by the end of December in the face of a “tidal wave of Omicron coming.”

“If I plug those numbers in for B.C., it predicts more cases than we’ve ever seen by early January and hospitalization rates a couple of weeks thereafter hitting their peak,” said Otto, a professor in zoology and member of the independent COVID modelling group.

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“Everybody should be racing out to get a vaccine (and) booster dose,” Otto said. “For the province, I hope that they ramp up availability of the boosters because that’s the one thing we can do now to prevent a January surge.”

In B.C., the plan to administer booster doses started with more vulnerable populations, seniors in care, Indigenous people over age 18 and those who received the AstraZeneca viral-vector vaccine between November and January.

Others over age 18 aren’t due to begin receiving invitations to book booster shots until January at dates between six and eight months following their last vaccination.

Health Minister Adrian Dix didn’t answer questions about speeding up the plan Monday, but an unattributed backgrounder from his staff said public health officials are monitoring Omicron’s influence on cases and are prepared to adjust programs as needed.

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B.C. recorded 1,129 new cases of COVID-19 over the past three days, according to updated information on the B.C. CDC dashboard. There are now 2,949 active cases in the province.

There were also five deaths reported, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 2,386.

The number of people in hospital dropped to 185, though the number in ICU remained the same at 72.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Stow Health Vaccination center, in Westminster, London, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. Johnson says that Britain faces a “tidal wave” of infections from the omicron coronavirus variant and he has announced a huge increase in booster vaccinations to strengthen defences against it.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Stow Health Vaccination center, in Westminster, London, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. Johnson says that Britain faces a “tidal wave” of infections from the omicron coronavirus variant and he has announced a huge increase in booster vaccinations to strengthen defences against it. Photo by Jeremy Selwyn /PNG

Meanwhile, at the University of Victoria, officials cancelled in-person exams as of Monday, asking instructors to move them online or other alternate means, as a precaution after 30 students tested positive for COVID-19 after contracting the virus at social gatherings off campus.

And this Christmas season won’t be the time to let up on public health measures, especially the wearing of masks, as a weary population contemplates gathering in ways that weren’t possible a year ago.

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“Unfortunately there are no secret messages here,” said infectious disease expert Horacio Bach. “Just keep your mask (on), even if you are talking, remove only to eat.”

“And maybe someone (in the party) needs to be responsible to say, ‘OK guys, you don’t have the mask, please wear them,’” said Bach, a clinical professor of infectious diseases in the University of B.C.’s faculty of medicine.

Limit the size of gatherings if they are going to be indoors, Bach recommends, keep a window open where possible to help air circulation and make sure anyone who is unwell stays at home.

“Transmission is so fast, you know, we have few cases now, but that can (very quickly) to hundreds,” Bach said. In Denmark, officials are recording a doubling of Omicron cases every two days.

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In Canada , infectious-disease expert Dr. Brian Conway said that transmissibility means Omicron “is going to slowly but surely become the dominant variant.”

“I think what we’re learning about the Omicron variant is that it’s probably less virulent, the one death reported today in the United Kingdom notwithstanding,” Conway said.

So far, rising infection rates haven’t led to “an epidemic of severe disease, hospitalization (and) use of ICU beds,” said Conway, president and medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre.

However, researchers in China have shown that its mutations allow it to partly evade vaccines, though antibodies from vaccinations help to fight off infections once they occur.

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So the Omicron experience reinforces that countries need to “vaccinate everyone, everyone get their two shots,” Conway said, and advance third shots “a bit more quickly than perhaps we had planned.”

Over the winter, Conway said people need to be prepared for spikes in infection rates and rising cases while people are confined indoors and third-doses of vaccination are being rolled out.

And there likely won’t be a clear end point to the pandemic and beginning of COVID as an endemic, more manageable disease, but Conway expects another booster to be available next fall along with flu shots.

depenner@postmedia.com

twitter.com/derrickpenner 

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