VANCOUVER -- As British Columbia’s top infectious disease modellers warn hospitals could remain full for the next month despite declining COVID-19 infections, CTV News Vancouver has learned a Metro Vancouver hospital experiencing an outbreak is testing asymptomatic staff for the first time.

The COVID-19 B.C. modelling group warns that if the circuit-breaker restrictions are lifted as planned immediately after Victoria Day, the coronavirus could see a resurgence, which could slam hospitals already struggling to keep up with cases and deal with outbreaks. 

In an internal memo sent to Lions Gate Hospital staff notifying them that 16 patients and one staff member have tested positive for COVID-19, the hospital’s director of acute services is offering everyone in the affected units the opportunity to get tested, whether they have symptoms or not. Sources say this is the first time asymptomatic testing has taken place at the hospital.

“We will be offering COVID testing to all staff who worked on 4E and 4W at any time during the last two weeks,” wrote Lona Cunningham in the April 29 memo. “Asympomatic staff may continue to work.”

British Columbia does not routinely test people without symptoms. It only tests asymptomatic people in a handful of circumstances, unlike other provinces, which test more widely

CTV News asked Vancouver Coastal Health if a staff member at Lions Gate Hospital infected the 16 patients or if infectious disease specialists believe airborne transmission was to blame. A spokesperson says the cause of the outbreak remains under investigation.

The memo goes on to describe the deep-cleaning and infection control protocols underway, but also makes special note of vaccination status.

“Staff are also reminded that PPE is required for immunized individuals as it may be possible to transmit COVID-19 even after vaccination,” wrote Cunningham. “For staff members and physicians, if you have any symptoms of COVID-19, please stay home and visit a testing site, even if you have received the COVID-19 vaccine.”

This is the third time an outbreak has been declared at Lions Gate Hospital and the fourth time it’s been placed under outbreak protocols. The last outbreak was in November. The first declared outbreak was in April 2020 lasted more than a month. Before that, an initial cluster of cases among administrative staff in March 2020 that wasn’t officially deemed an outbreak saw Lions Gate become the only hospital in the health authority to move to outbreak response Phase 3, “which means the hospital will accept only emergency patients.”

Experts expect hospitals to remain full for a month, longer restrictions required

For the past month, doctors and other medical staff have warned that B.C.’s daily hospitalization statistics, while high and often record-breaking, haven’t captured the stress, strain and complications facing frontline workers, who are seeing younger and younger patients in hospitals operating at full capacity.

Now, a group of the province’s top infectious disease modellers is predicting that the number of hospitalized COVID patients is likely to stay just as high for the next month, while warning infections could spike if the circuit-breaker restrictions are lifted immediately after Victoria Day, as is currently planned.

“Closing indoor dining and these hotspot vaccination campaigns have really seemed to have made the difference in bringing down numbers,” said Sally Otto, UBC biomathematics professor and co-author of the study from the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group.

“Our goal is to alert the public that they should not expect the hospital and ICU demand to plummet.”

The group of academics from SFU and UBC, along with independent researchers and data modellers, has found that while the original COVID virus is dropping off, infections of variants remain steady and that’s keeping hospitalizations high. 

They expect this dynamic to continue for the next month, even with the circuit-breaker restrictions, so they’re urging provincial health officials to extend the ban on indoor dining and other measures until at least June to give the vaccine rollout time to immunize as many people as possible with their first dose.

“We have to get to 40 per cent vaccination to undo the transmission advantage of these new variants,” said Otto, noting that the variants are about 60 per cent more contagious.

“To open up, we’re going to need to get 80 to 90 per cent of our population vaccinated, and even then we’ll still have to have other protective measures like contact tracing as well as rapid antigen and other testing to keep an eye on cases,” she added.

Earlier this week, the health minister announced all British Columbians in their 50s can book a vaccine appointment starting next week, with those in their 40s expected to be eligible the week after.

Health officials are encouraging people to register for a vaccination online, so that when it’s their turn to book they’re already in the system. 

So far, 32.9 per cent of British Columbians have had at least one shot. Ontario has vaccinated 32.4 per cent, Quebec 35.3 and Alberta just 28.6 per cent. 

More than one million doses of the Pfizer vaccine alone are scheduled for delivery to B.C. next month and officials now expect every adult who wants a vaccine can have their first shot by mid-June as a result.