British Columbia is beginning to manage COVID-19 more like the common cold, the province’s top doctor said Friday while explaining major shifts in the government’s approach to the pandemic.
While contact-tracing was a foundational part of the provincial COVID-19 response for the better part of two years, officials largely abandoned that tool weeks ago, deeming it ineffective in the face of Omicron’s rapid spread and shorter incubation period.
They began discouraging PCR testing for most of the population around the same time, reserving limited capacity for health-care workers, seniors and others at higher risk.
Earlier this week, the government also updated self-isolation guidelines, removing the minimum length of time many adults need to stay home after catching the virus.
“I absolutely recognize this as a shift. It means we have to change our way of thinking,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said at a news conference.
“But we are all familiar with these new measures. They’re much like how we manage other respiratory illnesses – influenza, or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), or enteroviruses that cause the common cold.”
For the time being, the province’s recommendations largely revolve around self-management, meaning that individuals should be assessing themselves for symptoms on a daily basis. Anyone who has even mild symptoms, such as a sore throat or sniffles, should stay home, but can return to their life once they have resolved.
“As long as we are feeling well, in this new context we can and must continue going to work, going to school and socializing safely in our small groups,” Henry said.
Previously, the government’s guidance was for most people to self-isolate for at least five days from the onset of symptoms, or from their test date if they were asymptomatic. The five-day requirement remains in place for fully vaccinated adults who test positive for COVID-19, as well as children and youths who test positive, regardless of their vaccination status.
Unvaccinated adults who receive a positive PCR test are still expected to self-isolate for 10 days.
To help people understand the province’s current testing priorities, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s online symptom checker has been updated with a new series of questions. Website visitors can find out whether their symptoms warrant a PCR test, or whether they belong to a priority group.
“If the symptom checker advises you to get tested, then you should continue to limit your interactions with others and get tested as soon as possible,” Henry said.
The provincial health officer noted that the level of transmission taking place in the province means most people are likely to be close contacts of at least one person with the virus. Many cases are mild or asymptomatic, however, particularly among the fully vaccinated.
“We cannot eliminate all risk,” Henry added. “And I think that’s something that we need to understand and accept. As this virus has changed, it’s become part of what we will be living with for years to come.”
She was emphatic that the new approach does not mean COVID-19 has already become endemic, which some infectious disease specialists believe could happen this spring, at least in higher-income countries.
“We are clearly not in a place where it’s endemic right now,” Henry said. “What we are doing is adjusting to the changes that we’ve seen from the new variant.”
Health officials continue to recommend the same layers of protection that have been used since early in the pandemic for reducing spread. That includes regular hand-washing, wearing quality masks indoors, and keeping groups small.
People who are at higher risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, such as the immunocompromised, are also advised to be extra cautious.
Unlike colds and flus, COVID-19 is also still considered dangerous enough to warrant a number of impactful public health measures. Bars and nightclubs remain closed province-wide, while arenas, movie theatres and other venues are still limited to 50 per cent capacity. Organized events such as wedding and funeral receptions are still on pause, and providing proof of vaccination is required for many activities.
While transmission for the Omicron wave is believed to have peaked in B.C. earlier this month, based on wastewater testing, hospitalizations and deaths have yet to subside.
The 15 coronavirus-related deaths reported Thursday pushed the province’s seven-day average to a 13-week high of 8.29 per day. The number of test-positive patients in hospital reached an all-time high of 895 on Wednesday, though many are what’s known as incidental cases, meaning the patient was hospitalized for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.
Health officials continue to strongly recommend vaccination, pointing to an ever-growing mass of “incontrovertible evidence” that it dramatically reduces the chances of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Vaccine protection also reduces – but does not eliminate – the chances of catching the virus and transmitting it to others, Henry said.