As vaccinations ramp up, when will B.C. ease restrictions? Health officials weigh in
VANCOUVER -- Big parties and international travel will likely remain unsafe for British Columbians this summer, despite the province's plans to administer millions of COVID-19 doses over the coming months.
That's the latest forecast from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who was asked Friday when B.C.'s dramatically ramped up immunization program might pave the way for residents to remove their masks and begin gathering again.
The short answer is that it's still too soon to say, though Henry did offer a few predictions for the year ahead.
She suggested this summer will probably look like last year, at least when it comes to vacations and big gatherings.
"I absolutely think there's opportunities for us to travel within B.C. this summer," Henry said. "It's not realistic to think there's going to be a lot of safe international travel by this summer, just because of the situation around the world."
Henry also expects the kinds of "big parties" that led to widespread COVID-19 transmission last July and August will remain off-limits. But much of the province's most at-risk populations should be vaccinated by then, if everything goes according to plan, and Henry noted the virus doesn't appear to spread as easily in the warmer months as it does in fall and winter.
With that in mind, she expects "increased social interactions" will be allowed this summer.
"I do believe we'll be able to get together in smaller groups, responsibly," Henry said.
It's unclear whether that means bigger social bubbles in 2021 than 2020. The provincial health officer noted there are "a whole lot of unknowns" in the province's calculations, and that the government's plans are prone to change as necessary.
As for the tough-but-temporary restrictions that have been in place since early November, Henry said lifting those will depend on the public's ability to slow the spread of COVID-19. It's too early in the immunization program to expect the vaccine to do the heavy lifting there.
"We need to really focus on reducing the transmission risk in our community as low as possible, because that's what drives outbreaks in long-term care, that's what drives exposure events in schools, and that’s what drives the risk in our social gatherings," Henry said.
"If we can do that, we can start having increased … social connection again."
She also suggested the faster-spreading COVID-19 variants that have arrived in B.C. could impact the timeline if they lead to another rapid surge in cases.
The current restrictions, which generally do not allow for in-person socializing between different households, are scheduled to remain in place until at least Feb. 5. While Henry said health officials will be looking at potentially revising the public health orders at that time, she strongly discouraged British Columbians from making travel plans over the Family Day long weekend.
"Stay local," she said. "We won't be at a place where we can travel."
And getting life fully back to normal, at least in terms of social interactions and gatherings, isn't likely until the fall, according to Henry.