Reporter’s Notebook: As COVID cases rise, here’s what you need to know

How Omicron is changing the game and what that means for holiday travel and gatherings.

The following is an excerpt from the Cowichan This Week email newsletter, delivered to inboxes every Thursday. Subscribe for more information and updates like this, as well as a round-up of local news and events. The Discourse also offers weekly newsletters for the Nanaimo region and the West Shore.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a lot of pandemic information in this newsletter. I’m afraid to say that period has come to an end. I’ve been following the latest information closely as I think about my own holiday plans, and want to share what I think is the most important to know. 

The B.C. government’s modelling data suggests that cases could climb to five times what they are now in the next two weeks, in a worst-case scenario. Even in the best-case scenario, the daily case rate is expected to climb nearly as high as it has ever been by mid-January.

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That’s because of the arrival of a new variant of the virus, which you’ve likely heard of, called Omicron. It’s more contagious than Delta, which is more contagious than those that came before. 

That means it’s time to reconsider some holiday plans. The federal government has advised against any non-essential international travel. And provincial officials say that advice applies to travel within the country, too. “It’s pretty simple. If it’s not necessary, don’t go,” said B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix in a news conference on Wednesday. Travel has been a source of spread for the Omicron variant, including a rugby tournament in Ontario, where players who attend the University of Victoria contracted the virus. 

The Omicron variant appears to be better at overcoming the protections that vaccines offer. People who have been vaccinated twice still generally have good protection against getting so sick that they will need hospital care. But the protection isn’t enough, in many cases, to prevent mild or moderate illness that can be passed on to others. The Omicron variant spreads relatively easily through vaccinated and unvaccinated populations, which is part of why the case numbers have the potential to climb so quickly. People who are vulnerable — because they are unvaccinated, because they are older or otherwise — will be particularly vulnerable in the coming weeks.

A third dose of vaccine, administered at least six months after the first, does appear to provide good protection against Omicron. The province is offering those booster doses now, between six and eight months after the second dose. Children five and older are now eligible for vaccination

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has advised against large holiday parties and against gathering with strangers, with anyone who is unvaccinated or with anyone whose vaccination status is unknown. 

If you are planning to gather over the holidays, there are ways to reduce the risk. Gathering outdoors is better than indoors. If inside, consider improving ventilation by opening windows a few inches and turning on the kitchen hood fan. Masks also offer protection, and the quality and fit of the mask matters. Better masks fit closely to the face and have multiple layers. Medical masks and respirators are better than non-medical cloth masks. Making sure that no one shows up to the party if they feel even a little unwell is essential. 

Some provinces are now distributing rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 to the general public. These tests can be done in 15 minutes and are very good at detecting the virus in people when they are at their most contagious. In British Columbia, the government has so far only made these tests available to some businesses, community service organizations and institutions. Under pressure, the province says it will get some tests out to the general public in January. 

In the meantime, the general public in B.C. can only access the tests by purchasing them online. Rapid Test and Trace Canada and The Canadian Shield are among the companies offering Health Canada-approved testing kits for delivery to B.C. The tests cost about $10 each and come in packs of five or 25. Many are criticizing provincial governments for the inequities created when only those with resources to find and purchase tests online have access to them. For more information on rapid testing, listen to this Globe and Mail interview with Dr. Dalia Hasan, a Canadian physician who is advocating for widespread free access to rapid testing. The interview also includes information on other ways to manage risk. 

Be well and be safe! I know this is a lot of information, and we are all burned out and overwhelmed. But my wish for you and your people is to be empowered to make the best decisions you can with the information available. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to send me an email and I will do my best to respond. 

Thanks for reading, 

Jacqueline [end]

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