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Fraser Health licensed practical nurse Femia Gabiana, second right, administers a first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to a woman at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on May 17, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The British Columbia government is expected to announce its plans this week to provide COVID-19 vaccines to children 12 and older, moving the province a significant step closer to some level of herd immunity. But public-health officials, worried about the potential for a fourth wave, say the easing of pandemic restrictions will be slow and cautious.

The province’s vaccine rollout is now moving faster than expected, as vaccine supply grows, and tens of thousands of British Columbians are due in the coming week for their booster shot, putting them in the rare class of residents who are deemed to be fully immunized.

B.C. has declared that the path to reopening this year is based on widespread immunization, but details of the reopening remain elusive.

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According to modelling from the Public Health Agency of Canada, at least 75 per cent of adults need to have their first vaccine shot and 20 per cent need to have their second shot in order to avoid another surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The province’s vaccine rollout plan has already reached more than 55 per cent of the adult population, but just 3 per cent of British Columbians have had their second shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. Even fully vaccinated residents are still expected to follow all the pandemic restrictions, such as minimizing non-essential travel and avoiding indoor gatherings.

In April, the province launched circuit-breaker measures, including geographic limits on vacation and recreational travel, while the ban on in-room service at restaurants and bars was extended. Those restrictions were set to end after the May long weekend. Limits on indoor social gatherings have been in place since early November.

Health officials are now tempering expectations about any significant easing of restrictions.

After the May long weekend, “we will be able to move on and move ahead,” Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said this week. But she stressed that any changes will be slow and cautious. “It will be gradually increasing in all different areas over a period of weeks and months.”

Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its mask policy, saying that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most circumstances. As well, many countries are looking at easing travel restrictions for fully vaccinated people, and Canada is working with international partners to develop a standardized vaccine certification for travel.

B.C. health officials did not respond to questions about how many British Columbians can expect to be fully vaccinated by this summer.

“I expect this virus will be with us with us for years, but how it impacts us will be very different than what’s happening right now,” Dr. Henry told a news conference on Monday. “There may be times when people will need to stay home from school or work, they’ll need to wear masks in certain situations. ... These are all the things that we’re planning for contingencies in the fall.”

Caroline Colijn, a mathematics professor and Canada 150 Research Chair at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, said the province doesn’t need to eradicate COVID-19 to reopen – in fact, it likely will not – but it needs a lot more people immunized to get the pandemic under control.

““In a very practical way, we will see herd immunity,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “It doesn’t mean eradication, but it will mean a profound difference, we can return to a largely reopen life and the difference is vaccination.”

While B.C. has mostly been hampered by vaccine supply until recently, there is concern that vaccine hesitancy will reduce the effectiveness of widespread immunity. “We probably need 90 per of our eligible population to be vaccinated,” Prof. Colijn said. “And we can’t predict human behaviour.”

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