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How a B.C. doctor helped avoid rising case numbers of the COVID Delta variant

Dr. Danuta Skowronski is pictured in a handout photo.
Dr. Danuta Skowronski is pictured in a handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

So far, B.C. has beat back the worst outcomes associated with the Delta variant of COVID-19 and the root of this success can be traced back to a presentation given in January by a top official from the BC Centre for Disease Control.

Dr. Danuta Skowronski, the epidemiology lead of influenza and emerging respiratory pathogens at the BCCDC, initiated an internal debate in B.C. public health about how long the interval should be between two doses of vaccine.

Faced with low amounts of vaccine doses and an uncertain supply schedule, Skowronski made the case that lengthening the interval would mean many more people would get the first dose and get it much sooner than if the interval were shorter. As well, the first dose provided a very high level of protection so there was no risk of moving to a longer interval.

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After weeks of discussion, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced on March 1 that B.C. would move to a 16-week interval, a much longer period than the three to seven weeks recommended by Pfizer and Moderna, the two vaccine manufacturers.

Why was Skowronski’s work so important? By adopting her recommendation, B.C. was able to vaccinate far more young people over a shorter period of time than did most other jurisdictions, notably the U.K.

This was critical because in the U.K. the Delta variant is infecting people under the age of 30 at a much greater rate than other age groups (as has been the case with COVID-19 generally throughout the pandemic) and it is putting people in hospital at a higher rate than was associated with standard COVID-19.

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At this point, the Delta variant is showing up in B.C. but not in large numbers and there is no evidence it is wreaking anywhere near the havoc it is inflicting on the U.K, (where it has grown by 80 per cent in the past week, while B.C.’s daily COVID0-19 cases and hospitalizations are in decline).

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The latest update from the BCCDC, in fact, shows the Delta variant has actually declined in numbers when it comes to proportionality to other variants of concern. Two weeks ago, it comprised nine per cent of the variants of concern cases but last week it slipped back to six per cent.

Make no mistake: the Delta variant remains a danger and could indeed spike in number as we ease public health restrictions (and the number of COVID-19 cases among people in their 20s may well increase in number because they are the most social age group with more personal contacts).

In addition, our approved vaccines are not as effective against the Delta variant unless two doses are administered. The flip side to vaccinating so many people so quickly with one dose, of course, is that we have relatively fewer people with two doses.

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However, it is also important to remember that more than 500,000 people aged 18 to 29 in B.C. have received at least one dose of vaccine, a vaccination rate of about 68 per cent. In the U.K., the number of people in the same age group who have received at least one dose has barely exceeded 25 per cent.

Back at the beginning of the vaccine rollout, it was projected that people in their 20s in B.C. would get their first dose in late June or July. Because of the longer interval between doses, and a large increase in vaccine supply, they were able to get their first jab in late April.

As a result, we have so far avoided the U.K. experience with the Delta variant. Thanks in no small part to Dr. Skowronski.

Keith Baldrey is the chief political reporter for Global BC

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