The same late-November weekend the World Health Organization declared Omicron a variant of concern, it had already infected members of a University of Victoria men’s rugby team on the pitch of a Kingston, Ont. university campus.
At least four players would bring the variant home to Vancouver Island, and for a while, Island Health would find itself in the unusual and unenviable position of leading the province in daily case counts for the mutation that has driven a tsunami of cases in a fourth wave.
The virus has such a rapid transmission rate and short incubation period that it was inevitable it would find its way here, said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Henry, who has become the face of the province’s effort to beat back a near-two year pandemic in B.C., said the highly transmissible variant is so dramatically different that some in the scientific community are calling it COVID-21.
It has blown the roof off the worst-case modelling projections of 2,000 new cases a day — 3,798 were reported in the province Wednesday, including 566 in Island Health.
Hospitalizations, which lag weeks behind infections, have not reached worst-case modelling scenarios, but they are creeping up.
On Wednesday, the province reported 317 people are in hospital with COVID-19, including 83 in intensive care — up from 220 in hospital and 73 in ICUs just five days earlier.
If doctors have learned anything over the past two years, it’s to “never underestimate the ability of a virus to take advantage of any weakness or lack of protection — where the virus gets an opportunity to spread, it changes and mutates,” said Henry.
In an interview with the Times Colonist on Wednesday, looking ahead to a third year plagued by a global pandemic, the provincial health officer sounded an optimistic note, saying the newest strain of the virus appears to cause milder illness in vaccinated people, and while increasing hospitalizations are worrisome, she believes this is the last year COVID-19 will dominate our lives.
She acknowledges, however, that that’s what she and other health officials thought about Delta before Omicron emerged.
“We were in a really good place,” said Henry, a former navy physician. Vaccinations were high, cases in the summer had fallen, and the province was able to take a phased-in approach to reopening.
An epidemiologist who served on the front lines of Ebola outbreaks in Uganda in 2001, as the operational lead on the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, and on a national committee responding to H1N1 in 2009, Henry said she had the playbook on Delta — and then Omicron hit.
Whereas Delta took several months to surpass previous variants of concern, Omicron took just three weeks to pass Delta — about 50 to 60 per cent faster, she said.
She’s optimistic, however, that this wave will be shorter — typically, when you have a shorter incubation period and rapidly increasing cases, the wave passes quicker.
“But obviously I’ve been proven wrong by other things with this virus, but that’s what we would expect,” she said.
Vaccination rates are particularly high on Vancouver Island, said Henry. And in the province as a whole, 83 per cent of people age five and older are fully vaccinated.
But British Columbians are still travelling, domestically and internationally, and rates of immunization around the world vary.
Omicron now accounts for 80 per cent of cases in the province. Over the next few days, researchers will dig deeper into the severity of Omicron hospitalizations in B.C. and try to figure out, among other things, if they’ve been caused by the virus or presented as other illnesses and were exacerbated by the variant.
Henry said hospital emergency departments aren’t seeing people flooding in the way they did with Delta.
Omicron is presenting as a milder upper respiratory illness and is harder to detect, as it can initially seem more like a cold or flu.
While COVID is expected to be with us for many years to come, Henry said it’s likely to present like a flu that may require further vaccine boosters, but is not expected to lurk like measles or other highly infectious diseases.
And to date, there’s been no reports in B.C. of anyone testing positive for both influenza and COVID at the same time.
Criticized for both too many and too few COVID orders and restrictions, as well as the way vaccinations and rapid tests have rolled out, Henry said she has always tried to balance the need to prevent serious illness and overwhelming the health-care system, with knowledge of the negative impact orders and restrictions can have on the mental health and well being of society and the economy.
Orders are a last resort, she said.
Booster shots are now rolling out for everyone six months after their second shot, and shipments of rapid tests are arriving from the federal government, with the first batches prioritized for long-term care facilities and schools.
Henry said the most important thing British Columbians can do over the next few weeks is to take all the precautions possible to prevent transmission, and not stigmatize people who fall ill despite being vaccinated and following provincial health orders.
“The reality is this virus has found a way to spread — that’s what it does — and the fact that we’ve done everything right, the fact that so many people have been vaccinated, the fact that people are respecting people’s space and wearing masks, and staying home from work, and staying away from others, that’s all the good stuff that we’re doing and we need to keep doing that.”
The threat isn’t that one person brings it into a grocery store or classroom, but that a variety of workers or students get the virus in gatherings at home or from contacts in the community, “because that’s where it’s spreading, through social connections and gatherings.”
Then, come spring, the hope is that between vaccination and added immunity from infections, “we have a level of immunity that allows us to calibrate — it doesn’t mean that next winter is going to be scot-free, but it means we’ll know how to manage it in a better way.
“And yes, I do think this is the tipping point and learning to live with this virus and still being able to do most things, but we’re not quite there yet.”