VANCOUVER -- A group of B.C.'s top infectious disease modellers is warning the province's hospitals could be overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases as early as next month if infections continue to increase at their current rate.

The B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group includes independent data scientists and academics from UBC and SFU who have been advising public health officials on the trajectory of the pandemic, including predicting the impact of factors like restrictions, vaccines and variants.

Now, in a newly published modelling projection, they’re sounding the alarm, saying unless there’s a dramatic drop in the infection rate, B.C.’s hospitals will not be able to keep up with the number of people seriously ill with COVID-19 in as little as three weeks.

“Our hope is this will help in the efforts here in British Columbia to know what we’re dealing with and really ramp up protection because we’re all on the same page trying to get this pandemic under control,” said report co-author and UBC biomathematics professor Sally Otto.

She says the group has already shared a pre-release version with government so it's aware of their projections. The statisticians believe British Columbians' overall activity levels are down 20 per cent compared to February and March, but need to go down another 20 per cent to avoid outstripping hospital capacity.

“The danger zone is in the next couple of months before we have that really large vaccinated population," said Otto. "That’s why we have to act now and act strongly, because that hoped-for day when we have so many people vaccinated is still too long away to tamp down this variant. ... I hope 100 per cent that these (hospital) projections never come to pass because we do what is needed to reduce transmission.”

Front-line hospital doctors have been raising the alarm for weeks that COVID-19 hospitalizations are going up and they're seeing relatively young patients in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Fraser Health is juggling patients between hospitals that have capacity to help those feeling the strain.

On Wednesday, hospitalizations went up yet again, catching up with earlier rising infection numbers. Doctors have often warned that deaths and hospitalizations are a “lagging indictor," meaning it can take weeks after a surge in cases to see the impacts of serious disease.

"There’s a lot more that can be done to curb infections – there are population-level strategies in a lot of places, in workplaces, in schools, with non-essential behaviours of all kinds and it has to happen,” said family physician Dr. Manya Sadouski. “What’s going on so far is far too incremental given the explosive growth of the virus, which is kind of a mathematical truth.”

She emphasized the need for greater discussion and public messaging around aerosol transmission of the virus, which other experts have urged as well. There is widespread consensus within scientific community that COVID is transmitted primarily through aerosolized particles, particularly in enclosed spaces, rather than on surfaces.

"For example masking is important but indoor spaces, how ventilation is managed, being indoors with other people, and being clear that the spread is aerosol are really important,” said Sadouski. "If people are going to be asked to managed their behaviours, they really need to know the basic principles of how this virus is spread so they can manage a variety of scenarios that may not be absolutely specified in the rules”

Otto is encouraging the government to ramp up testing and make better and more widespread use of rapid tests, and is also emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

“The tsunami is coming, but if we can bend it back down, our vaccines will help us," Otto said. "There’s one main message and that is we really need everyone who can get vaccinated be vaccinated. ... Right now, across Canada, there’s estimates that only about 72 per cent of 20-to-30-year-olds are going to be willing to be vaccinated so please, please everybody, when you’re eligible, go and get a shot.”​