Another layer of British Columbia’s pandemic restrictions is on track to be lifted this month, as new modeling on COVID-19 shows the continued decline in transmission around the province.
Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer, released new figures on Thursday showing that over the past two weeks, under the first stage of B.C.'s reopening, transmission rates remain low in almost every part of the province. The few exceptions have emerged in the Fraser Valley, with some clusters related to workplaces and a family gathering, but the overall picture shows the province is at low risk from the pandemic.
“I’m very hopeful that end of June into July, we’ll be able to take those vacations that we need,” Dr. Henry told a news conference.
British Columbians can safely increase their level of contact, according to the figures released Thursday, but at a level far below normal. Dr. Henry said people are in contact with others at roughly one-third of their prepandemic levels. The models show that residents can increase their contact up to 50 or 60 per cent of normal levels without triggering a spike in cases, she said. But at contact rates of 70 per cent, COVID-19 cases would be expected to rise rapidly.
“We still need to keep our connections and our contacts and our bubbles small,” she said. “Not having large gatherings is incredibly important and we’ve had a reminder of that in the last week, where we have had somebody inadvertently bring it into their close family, and we’ve had a transmission to a number of people.”
The province declared a state of emergency in March, and closed a number of non-essential businesses, banned large gatherings and limited travel. Those measures were followed by a steady decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases.
On May 19, with the spread of COVID-19 cases dropping off, the government began the first stage of reopening, allowing day use of provincial parks, in-room dining service at restaurants, and the return of services such as dentistry and hair salons. It has also resumed elective surgeries and reopened schools, on a voluntary and part-time basis, for June.
The next stage of reopening, which would allow British Columbians to travel for recreation within the province, won’t begin until Dr. Henry is satisfied the spread of COVID-19 remains under control. The government has said this Phase 3 reopening would permit camping, movie theatres, spas and hotels to reopen. As well, film and TV production would be allowed to resume.
She said public-health officials will continue to be vigilant in monitoring new cases, and noted that this week’s large demonstrations against racism and police brutality present a risk of COVID-19 transmission. “We are all concerned about demonstrations that have happened, that it will trigger a surge in cases, and we’re watching very carefully for that.”
The province also released new modeling based on age, providing reassurance to parents who have been concerned about sending their children back to school this month.
Dr. Henry noted children are less likely to get infected with COVID-19. Even in the worst-case scenario, models that assumed children did have the same rate of transmission as adults, the projections show the reopening of schools does not trigger rapid growth – so long as the measures that have been put in place to increase physical distancing in the schools, and increased sanitation, are maintained. She said the key is that people need to self-isolate if they have potential COVID-19 symptoms.
“So as schools reopen, and even if all schools were open and all children are in and we relaxed our distancing measures, as long as we were fastidious about staying away if we are ill, whether it’s children or adults in particular, then we would prevent a rapid increase in epidemic growth.”
The Phase 4 reopening is not expected until there is a widely distributed treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, and that would allow the resumption of large gatherings such as rock concerts and conventions.
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