Is B.C. approaching a 3rd wave of COVID infections? It depends on variants
VANCOUVER -- A prominent infectious disease expert believes the spread of COVID-19 variants is a key factor in determining whether B.C. will enter a third wave of infections. On Wednesday, that data was missing from the province's daily coronavirus update.
Dr. Brian Conway, the president and CEO of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, told CTV News that the proportion of variants now detected in Ontario is a major concern for doctors who declared that the province is entering a “third wave." British Columbia’s daily variant update was not provided Wednesday "due to a lab sequencing issue," provincial health officials said.
It’s the second time in a week that data issues around variants have emerged.
“I think we have not yet reached a criteria, I would say, for a third wave where there’s so much transmission we can’t keep track of it and the measures that we can apply short of a lockdown won’t be able to control it,” explained Conway. “The reason we all fear (the third wave) is because of this variant. The proportion we saw of the variant as of yesterday was 20 per cent…in Ontario they’re projecting it’ll be about 40 per cent, and that is what’s really driving the fear of a third wave.”
While B.C. has had more new COVID-19 cases per capita than Ontario in the past two weeks, we’re seeing slow growth in daily infections, while they’re seeing the early stages of a surge.
“I think there's no doubt that we're entering the third wave,” said Dr. Tasleem Nimjee, physician lead of COVID-19 emergency response and head of medical innovation at Humber River Hospital. “What's our growth going to look like and how steep is that curve, how big is that wave going to be? I think we still need at least a week to 10 days to start to gauge what that slope looks like, what the angle looks like.”
What’s in a name?
In part, public relations and messaging are at play in what’s being labeled a “third wave,” which we’ve seen in the past. For example, Ontario and federal health officials went for a “shock and awe” approach last spring by warning their citizens how high the death toll could be if they didn’t adopt any public health measures.
“You deserve to see the same numbers, you deserve to see the same information that I have,” insisted Ontario premier Doug Ford in April.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry disagreed, preferring an explanatory approach and a focus on prevention rather than “what ifs.”
"I think we'll see Dr. Henry speak of a significant and worrisome increase in the seven-day rolling average, we'll see her speak about the reproductive rate of the epidemic that was a little bit above one and that is now significantly more above one and the need for us to intervene to restore some equilibrium,” predicted Conway. “It's explaining the same phenomenon, just using slightly different words"
Focus appears to be on vaccines rather than restrictions
As doctors and public health officials watch B.C.’s infections continue their steady creep upwards, the premier doesn’t appear inclined to implement new restrictions to curb new infections and bring down COVID-19 hospitalizations, which have grown roughly a third in the past month.
“I wait anxiously for the page, the sheet to arrive for each day's count just as you in the media and people across B.C. do,” John Horgan told reporters. “I'm confident that we're in a good place. We are going from scarcity of vaccines to abundance, thank goodness, and we have a very solid plan in place.”
But Conway points out we’d need much more vaccine coming into Canada for every eligible adult to be vaccinated just once within the next six months. He believes following public health guidelines and dramatically expanding testing, which is now only being done at about a third of the available capacity, are just as important as targeted vaccinations in outbreak locations and other high-risk settings are to preventing or slowing a third wave.
When it comes to more restrictions, the veteran infectious disease specialist was pragmatic and supportive of the current approach, which he described as equal parts art and science.
“If it’s the judgment of the public health authorities that people just won’t do it if we try to toughen the restrictions and they’ll try to figure out a way around it – then they have to think of other things,” said Conway, the first being expanding testing and vaccinating strategically. “Or, 'Am I going to the loosen the restrictions in one area, allowing people to get together outdoors in large groups so that indoors people might follow the rules a bit more carefully?' It really is an art and the people in charge have committees that advise them.”