COVID-19
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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Experts, critics urge caution as BC lifts mask mandate and other restrictions

There’s room for optimism as the province announces its plan to remove restrictions, but this comes with new risks: BA.2 and the need to protect the most vulnerable

By Brishti Basu
March 10, 2022
COVID-19
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Experts, critics urge caution as BC lifts mask mandate and other restrictions

There’s room for optimism as the province announces its plan to remove restrictions, but this comes with new risks: BA.2 and the need to protect the most vulnerable

By Brishti Basu
Mar 10, 2022
Province of British Columbia / Flickr
Province of British Columbia / Flickr
COVID-19
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Experts, critics urge caution as BC lifts mask mandate and other restrictions

There’s room for optimism as the province announces its plan to remove restrictions, but this comes with new risks: BA.2 and the need to protect the most vulnerable

By Brishti Basu
March 10, 2022
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Experts, critics urge caution as BC lifts mask mandate and other restrictions
Province of British Columbia / Flickr

BC residents will no longer be required to wear masks at indoor public spaces as of 12:01am on Friday, March 11, as the province rolls back further restrictions that were put in place during the fifth wave of the pandemic. The vaccine card program will stay in effect for another month, until April 8.

The order restricting visitations to long-term care facilities will also be lifted Friday, but individual operators will decide how to resume broader social visitation, based on the specific risks and plans in each facility. BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she expects all facilities will be allowing visitors again by March 18.

Capacity limits on faith gatherings and restrictions on overnight camps for children and youth are also being lifted at 12:01am on March 11. Once the vaccine card requirement is removed on April 8, the mandate requiring post-secondary students living on campus to be vaccinated will also be lifted.

In the K-12 school system, masks can come off once students return from spring break—whenever that is for each school district. Other steps, like staggered lunch breaks, will also be repealed as the guidelines change after the break.

While making the announcement on Thursday, Henry said this step may make some people uncomfortable, but that individuals and businesses should keep wearing and requiring masks of their own volition if they prefer.

“I want to assure you that I feel confident about what we’re doing and that we are in a place to do this now,” Henry said. “These decisions are grounded in science and the data that we have.”

People will still be asked to wear masks in some settings like healthcare facilities and doctor’s offices, but workplaces—including public transit operators, grocery chains, and more—will decide their own policies on whether employees and visitors have to don one.

Both BC Transit and TransLink have fallen in line with the province’s measures and will remove mask requirements at the same time on March 11. In a statement to Capital Daily, BC Transit said they are working on removing signage about the mask requirements, and that other measures like the protective barrier for bus drivers, will stay in place.

BC Ferries also confirmed, in a statement to Capital Daily, that masks won’t be required onboard starting March 11.

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Some uncertainty

When it comes to taking public transit, the PHO said she will continue to wear a mask. Throughout the announcement Thursday, Henry reiterated her support for those who choose to keep masks on.

“While masks are no longer mandated under an order as of tomorrow, some people and some locations will continue to use masks personally or in their business, and that’s okay,” she said. “We need to support that. We need to recognize that we all have our own risks.”

During question period on Thursday, Henry partly focused on appealing to those who may be intolerant of people who keep their masks on. “We don’t know everybody’s story, and there is a reason why somebody may be wearing a mask,” she said. The face covering is especially important for people who are immunocompromised or elderly, she added.

But when asked whether there will be any measures to help those who are more vulnerable, Henry focused on the high rate of vaccination and declining hospitalizations in BC as an indicator of lower transmission, and thus, safety. She added that immunocompromised people have always had to manage their own risk.

“People who are going through cancer treatments, people who have transplants, they have always had to take additional protections to ensure that they’re not exposed to respiratory illnesses and to other infectious diseases because they know their immune systems are not as strong,” Henry said.

Keeping the vaccine card program in place was one way to ease people into a full return to life without pandemic-induced measures, according to Henry.

The PHO said they will use the time between now and April 8 to make sure lifting the mask mandate doesn’t cause another spike in cases and hospitalizations, but she also hopes keeping the vaccine card will give people “the confidence to go to some of these higher risk indoor settings,” like bars and restaurants without masks.

Moving forward, the health ministry will use random testing, wastewater surveillance, outbreaks at long-term care and assisted living facilities, whole genome sequencing, and other measures to keep track of the virus’s trajectory.

Sarah Otto, a UBC professor, infectious disease modelling expert, and member of the independent BC COVID-19 modelling group, said there are both risks and mitigating factors involved when thinking about the future of the pandemic.

In a phone interview with Capital Daily, Otto said there are now three main risks that could cause a rise in cases and hospitalizations. One, that too many people will stop following all the rules all at once, as masks that have been keeping transmission low are cast aside. Two, the threat of the BA.2 sub-variant, which the modelling group estimates will make up about 50% of cases in BC over the next week or two. And three, the most vulnerable populations got their booster shots about three months ago, and immunity from booster shots is known to wane in about that time.

“We're going to have to really keep a close eye on especially what happens to the people that are 70 and older or face health risks,” Otto said. “There's a decent possibility that hospitalizations will rise.”

At the moment, Otto said the main decline in infections has been among the BA.1 sub-strain of the Omicron variant; the BA.2 sub-strain has not been declining—rather it’s been slowly rising in prevalence over the past few weeks. Modelling shared by the health ministry that tracks variants of concern up to Feb. 19 confirms Otto’s observations.

Source: Ministry of Health presentation

On the other hand, Otto said it’s difficult to predict whether there will be a moderate or large spike in cases and hospitalizations because of two mitigating factors: better weather and immunity from prior infections.

As the weather gets warmer and people spend more time socializing outdoors, the risk of spreading the virus goes down. And as the virus has now been allowed to spread unchecked, more and more people have gained some immunity from being infected.

“That makes it harder for this virus to spread from person to person, and that can make up for the fact that the masks are taken off,” Otto said.

The big picture

The news about restrictions being lifted was a welcome one for the Greater Victoria business community according to Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO, Bruce Williams who spoke to Capital Daily before the announcement was made.

“In the big picture, I would be confident in saying that most businesses would welcome an easing of restrictions,” Williams said, adding that he has heard from some impatient members of the business community who want every order lifted right away. “There are organizations, like those that represent persons with disabilities, that are saying maybe it's a little bit too early, especially for people who are immunocompromised,” he said.

Williams hoped today’s announcement would contain supports for businesses that want to keep mask and vaccine requirements in place, but other than encouraging a “mask-positive” environment, no such steps have been taken.

“I personally—not speaking on behalf of the chamber—but I'm going to keep wearing a mask because I'm an old guy, and I don't really want to get sick,” Williams said. “I've really enjoyed the last two and a half years without having the flu.”

In a statement after the announcement, BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau said mask requirements should’ve been kept in high risk places like public transit and venues with low ventilation. Removing the mandate entirely, she said, sends the wrong signal that the pandemic is over.

With the warmer weather expected to provide a reprieve from high transmission rates before the return of the respiratory illness season, Furstenau wants the province to use this time to prepare for future waves of the pandemic.

“It’s really time for this government to look to healthcare workers and ask them about what are the conditions that need to be addressed and ameliorated and fixed within the system,” Furstenau told Capital Daily. “So that these waves don't become the relentless crushing burdens on frontline healthcare workers that they have been.”

She also calls for the province to fit every classroom with HEPA air filtration systems by September, provide free N95 masks to everyone who wants one, and raise more awareness about long COVID—a subject the PHO has rarely addressed at briefings, except when asked specific questions.

For her part, Henry said prioritizing ventilation in schools and workplaces, as well as recovering human resources in the healthcare sector are things we “need to look at” in the coming months, but no plan has been laid out.

As pandemic restrictions wind down, the PHO and health minister Adrian Dix said they will be scaling their public briefings and COVID-19 data updates down. There will be no briefing from the pair until the week of April 8, when the vaccine card order will be repealed.

The province will continue to share daily COVID-19 case counts until April 8, after which they will transition to weekly updates.

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