B.C. COVID modelling: Omicron wave may increase hospitalizations in July

With COVID-19 cases rising and hospitalizations no longer declining, an independent COVID-19 modelling group says B.C. is in another wave. But it’s not yet clear what impact it will have on the healthcare system. Monika Gul has more.

An independent B.C.-based COVID-19 modelling group is out with its latest report on the virus in the province, and it isn’t encouraging.

“The next Omicron wave has started in BC and across Canada and is being caused by a faster rate of spread by the BA.5 variant. The number of infections and severe cases leading to hospitalization are expected to rise through July,” the report reads in part.

Although they say the height of the BA.5 wave and its impact are challenging to predict, it is believed to currently make up about 80 per cent of cases.

The report suggests that spread may be due to inherent transmissibility and immune evasion.

The group, made up of researchers in several fields, examined B.C.’s wastewater data to draw its conclusions, as PCR COVID-19 testing in this province has long since been out of use for the general public.

However, they are appealing for the province to release more data for hospital admissions going forward to better reflect the most up-to-date information.

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UBC professor Sarah Otto with the group says it’s not the news we were hoping for.

“I think everybody was hoping that we’d have a little bit of a reprieve from these waves, but it’s clear in the data that the BA.5 wave — another variant of Omicron — is here, and we’re starting to see evidence of rising cases in British Columbia. Ontario and Quebec are a little further along in this BA.5 wave and they’re already seeing upticks in hospitalization rates as well.”

She says its been a long time since many people received their first booster, and immune systems naturally tone down their antibodies when the threat has passed.

Otto suggests wearing a mask and seeing friends and family outdoors to find the balance moving forward.

UBC mathematics professor Daniel Coombs who is also a member of the modelling group, agrees. He feels British Columbians need to get over any hesitation or stigma around mask wearing.

“During the upswing of a wave like this, seemingly small things that people do like wearing masks or staying more distanced, can have kind of a larger impact,” he explained.

“If you think about it, during the upswing, each infection that somebody has is sort of on average spreading to multiple people. So if you cut out the root of that tree … you can kind of control that whereas on the downslope of a wave, it doesn’t make quite as much difference as to whether people are careful or not.”

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Whether the province will see a significant upslope this summer is something the group is watching closely.

UVic professor Dean Karlen, also part of the modelling group, says how severe the next wave will be depends on the population immunity.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about that with this latest variant, BA.5. It’s not entirely clear how much unity the previous Omicron waves have, given the population. BA.2, the second wave of Omicron variant, was clearly suppressed by the first wave of Omicron, which produced many many cases, but also did provide immunity to the population. So the BA. 2 wave was much smaller than the BA.1 wave.”

Karlen notes other places have been dealing with BA.5 longer than B.C. has.

“Quebec has been seeing a growth in the hospital demand … for several weeks now. And so it hasn’t come to that peak yet. But that will be probably one of the first signs for us to just be able to predict at some level, how strong that peak will be here in B.C.,” he said.

B.C. has announced it would be offering fourth doses — or second boosters — to the general population starting in September. High-risk groups are slated to get their invitations first.

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Otto says boosters are important to ensure that whatever happens with the latest wave, people are as protected as possible. However, she questions the messaging from the province.

“If you look at the B.C. website, it’s extremely vague about this. On the one hand, it says we don’t recommend it, but you can do it. And on the other hand, it says wait for your invite.”

Many others have expressed their confusion about exactly when the doses will be administered, as many have passed the six-month mark since their last shot.

“We understand some people have unique needs and getting a booster dose in July or August might be best for them. This is okay, but not recommended,” the province wrote on its website. 

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