While the recently-identified Omicron variant isn't spreading as rapidly in B.C. as in other places across Canada, such as Ontario, B.C.'s top doctor underscores that health officials are actively monitoring the situation locally.
The Delta variant is still the primary strain in the province, noted Henry. As of Dec. 12, there were 44 confirmed cases of Omicron in B.C. Four of these cases were associated with the outbreak at the University of Victoria.
"I think it is important to know that we have transmission in the community now," she emphasized. "And that we are learning more from the global community about what that means with Omicron."
Henry noted that 24 cases of Omicron have been identified in the Fraser Health region and that the age range is "relatively young." There have been no hospitalizations in the province associated with the variant and most of the cases involve recent travel histories to several different countries.
Under the worst-case scenario modelled by the government, B.C. could see more than 2,000 daily cases by the end of the month. That figure would see hospitalizations rise to the previous daily maximum last spring, threatening to overwhelm health facilities.
Preliminary evidence suggests Omicron may carry an increased risk of reinfection compared to other variant strains, according to the World Health Organization. However, information is still limited and more information will be available in the coming weeks.
"That is another reason why more than ever if you had a previous infection, you still need to be vaccinated," Henry stated. "Vaccination protects against this reinfection that we're seeing more commonly with Omicron."
Health officials do not know if the variant will be able to evade the immune defences that are given through vaccination, she noted. "So there's still a lot we do not know about this new strain.
"What we do know is if cases go up, the percentage of people that end up needing hospital care go up as well."
An analysis Tuesday of data from South Africa, where the new variant is driving a surge in infections, suggests the Pfizer vaccine offers less defence against infection from omicron and reduced, but still good, protection from hospitalization.
The findings are preliminary and have not been peer-reviewed — the gold standard in scientific research — but they line up with other early data about omicron's behaviour, including that it seems to be more easily spread from person to person.
With files from the Canadian Press.