VANCOUVER -- B.C. could see a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections if infection rates or new variants of COVID-19 rise globally, says provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

The sobering reminder, shared Monday during a coronavirus update, comes as B.C. is seeing infection rates in the province’s third wave decline.

“We’re starting to see our curve come down … as more and more people are protected through vaccination,” she said.

“But all bets are off if things change globally, and we understand that as we go into next respiratory virus (transmission) season next fall, we may have to change some of the things that we’re doing again."

The coronavirus changes, mutates and reproduces as much as it can, she said.

“The more people that are infected, the more times it reproduces, the more chances … (there are that) a new mutation is going to arise that might give it some competitive advantage, and we've seen that most recently in India,” Henry said.

“As more people are being immunized we might see a strain that is able to infect people who've been protected from vaccines, so that is a worry."

New variants could pose new threats, she said, as has been seen in India.

Protecting the global population

On Monday the World Health Organization and UNICEF called on vaccine manufacturers and wealthy G7 countries such as Canada to increase the number of vaccines they are contributing to COVAX, a vaccine-sharing facility that offers vaccines to poorer countries. Doing so could make up for the 140 million global vaccine shortfall that has come as a result of India stopping vaccine exports in order to vaccinate its own population amid a massive and deadly nation-wide spike in cases.

Henry said that thinking of those in need in other countries had an impact on the province’s decision to wind down its use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which can be more easily stored and transported than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“Clearly we need to be part of the global community to provide vaccines for other countries,” she said.

“We’re not safe until we’re all safe, and that includes providing as much vaccine to countries globally."

However, B.C. is guarding some of its supply to provide vaccines for kids and teens, who make up a large demographic and will need to be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity.

“We know that children tend to have milder illness but it’s not insignificant for many children and we’ve seen that unfortunately here in B.C. too,” Henry said.

Health restrictions in the fall

Henry said that in the fall we might still have a need for public health restrictions, and that in the future outbreaks may be more sporadic and happen in long term care homes, schools or “congregate settings when we come together.”

“I expect this virus will be with us for years, but how it impacts us will be very different than what's happening right now,” she said.

Future outbreaks won’t have the same impacts, or cause as many deaths and hospitalizations, she said, as many people will have some level of protection through immunization.

“There may be times where people will need to stay home from school or work or we’ll need to wear masks in certain situations,” she said.

“We'll need to make sure that we have rapid testing available to detect … whether they have COVID or whether they have influenza or RSV, so these are all the things we're planning for, for contingencies in the fall.”

However, Henry said she thinks the province is “in a good place,” because the COVID-19 restrictions and precautionary measures imposed by health officials are currently working to bring transmission rates down.

“I'm cautiously optimistic that we get to the immunization levels that we need to protect those most at risk,” she said.