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Vaccines, variants, restrictions and protest: how COVID-19 touched B.C. in 2021

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: What you should know if you test positive for COVID-19' Health Matters: What you should know if you test positive for COVID-19
Global BC Medical Contributor Dr. Birinder Narang discusses what steps you should take if you test positive for COVID-19, and what to do if your symptoms get worse. – Dec 22, 2021

In a year of big news stories, there was nothing that touched virtually every aspect of British Columbians’ lives like the COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C. that saw a year bookended by new waves of the pandemic — and with them, new restrictions.

It also saw the province execute a vaccine rollout unlike anything seen before.

And it saw frustration and opposition amid opponents of pandemic measures reach new heights of their own.

Here’s a look at how COVID-19 touched B.C. in 2021.

Unprecedented vaccination campaign

It started as a trickle, then grew to a flood as British Columbians rolled up their sleeves in unprecedented numbers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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By mid-December, 2021 more than nine million doses of Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccine had been administered to more than 4.3 million people.

The rollout largely prioritized access based on age, which provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said was “the most important risk factor,” though some essential workers, particularly those in health-care, people deemed “clinically extremely vulnerable,” and those living in virus hotspots, were given earlier access at various points.

Read more: Court date set for B.C. couple accused of jumping vaccine queue in Yukon

With meagre supply to begin with, the province began giving the first shots of the Phizer vaccine to health-care and long-term care workers on Dec. 15, 2020.

Vulnerable residents in long-term care and assisted-living facilities followed over the next two months — which were fraught with supply shortages of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine.

Read more: Dentists, teachers, bus drivers want Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in B.C.

With no vaccine available to the general public, one wealthy Vancouver couple was even caught jumping the queue by flying to the Yukon to be immunized.

It wasn’t until March that the province’s rollout to the general public began to ramp up in any serious numbers.

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Click to play video: 'COVID-19: B.C. to shorten the timeline between vaccine first and second doses' COVID-19: B.C. to shorten the timeline between vaccine first and second doses
COVID-19: B.C. to shorten the timeline between vaccine first and second doses – May 25, 2021

Facing limited supply of vaccine, in March British Columbia became the first province in Canada to extend the gap between first and second doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from the manufacturer recommended 21 days to up to four months — a decision soon emulated by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACi).

Throughout the spring, as the province continued to use mRNA vaccines to move slowly downward through age categories according to its age-based rollout, it also made the Astrazeneca vaccine — which could be administered at a pharmacy — available to younger residents in essential work roles and later, to anyone over the age of 40.

Read more: Dentists, teachers, bus drivers want Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in B.C.

Early demand for the Astrazeneca vaccine was high, with long waitlists reported around the province, some people driving hours to get access to it, and supplies essentially drying up by the end of April.

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The use of the AstraZeneca vaccine was briefly paused in B.C. in late March when it was linked to rare cases of vaccine-induced prothrombotic immune thrombocytopenia (VIPIT). In late spring, NACI recommended that people who had their first dose with AstraZeneca get an mRNA second dose, though B.C. has allowed people to make their own choice.

By April, the province’s large-scale vaccine campaign was underway with convention centres, arenas and civic halls transformed into clinics staffed by nurses and in some cases supported by firefighters or laid off tourism industry workers.

In the three months from Apr. 1 and July 1 as bookings opened for increasingly younger age cohorts, the province went from 13.1 per cent of the population with one dose of protection to 69.57 with one dose.

Second doses saw a similar steep climb, jumping from just 3.71 per cent fully immunized on June 1 to 69.1 per cent three months later.

Click to play video: 'B.C.’s rollout plan for pediatric doses of the COVID-19 vaccine' B.C.’s rollout plan for pediatric doses of the COVID-19 vaccine
B.C.’s rollout plan for pediatric doses of the COVID-19 vaccine – Nov 22, 2021

About 80,000 doses were being given per day at the peak of the rollout.

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But vaccine uptake hit a plateau around the 70 per cent mark mid-summer, and dribbled slowly upward from there; by the end of the year, 82.3 per cent of all British Columbians had received one dose, while 79 per cent had two.

Uptake was also not evenly distributed throughout the province. B.C. ended the year with a number of local health areas in the northeast, the Kootenays and the eastern Fraser Valley 10 to 20 per cent below the provincial average for vaccination.

The fall saw the implementation of the B.C. Vaccine Card — a proof-of-immunization program required for restaurants, events and other non-essential services. That program was initially slated to last until January but looks likely to be extended amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: ‘The science is pretty clear’: Premier Horgan on why age has been the determining factor in B.C. vaccine rollout' Coronavirus: ‘The science is pretty clear’: Premier Horgan on why age has been the determining factor in B.C. vaccine rollout
Coronavirus: ‘The science is pretty clear’: Premier Horgan on why age has been the determining factor in B.C. vaccine rollout – Jan 22, 2021

It also saw the province implement controversial vaccine mandates on health-care workers and public servants. While the majority of workers agreed to be vaccinated, several thousand opted not to and were subsequently put on unpaid leave.

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Fall also saw the province begin rolling out third “booster” doses of vaccine amid evidence of waning effectiveness against new variants of the virus. In October, B.C. began offering boosters in the same order it rolled out the initial doses, to the elderly or most vulnerable first.

As the Omicron variant drives the fifth wave around the world, the government has faced significant criticism for holding to its plan of giving boosters for most people six to eight months after their second dose, while other provinces have sped up their rollout.

A Greek alphabet of variants

If 2021 was the year of the vaccine, it was also the year of the variant as the virus that causes COVID-19 mutated into new, more transmissible forms.

It started in December 2020, when a worryingly more contagious form of the virus — later dubbed the Alpha variant — was identified in the U.K., prompting widespread concern and new travel restrictions.

By Dec. 27, the first Alpha case was detected in B.C., and by the end of January, it represented nearly 40 per cent of COVID cases identified in the province.

Early in the new year, another variant — first identified in Brazil and eventually dubbed Gamma — soon arrived in B.C. It accounted for about one in four cases by late March.

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Read more: As COVID-19 variants spread in B.C., concern grows for effects on younger adults

Clusters of the variants helped boost case numbers in virus hotspots like Whistler, which recorded 300 new cases in January alone and was eventually prioritized for vaccination.

In addition to being more transmissible, the variants also affected more young people and were linked to an increased likelihood of hospitalization and admission to intensive care.

Click to play video: 'Do new variants makes this a race between the coronavirus and the vaccine?' Do new variants makes this a race between the coronavirus and the vaccine?
Do new variants makes this a race between the coronavirus and the vaccine? – Jan 25, 2021

As the variants became dominant, B.C. saw its biggest wave of the pandemic yet, with daily case counts topping out at nearly 1,300 in early April amid record hospital numbers.

A combination of stiff restrictions and rising vaccination numbers drove the numbers down through the spring, raising hopes amid many that the worst of the pandemic was over.

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Read more: COVID Delta variant a ‘concern’ but not spreading rapidly: B.C. officials

But a new variant with two key mutations, later dubbed Delta, was already driving record new case numbers in India — and in fact, had already been confirmed in B.C. in April.

Delta, too, proved to be much more contagious than earlier forms of COVID, though it remained largely in the background throughout the spring — representing fewer than one in 10 cases until beginning its breakout in June.

Along with being more transmissible, particularly to the unvaccinated, researchers later found the variant to be 133 per cent more deadly than the original COVID strain.

At the time, officials expressed concern about the variant but moved ahead with relaxing restrictions implemented earlier in the year, expressing confidence that high vaccination levels would be enough to keep it in check.

But by August, Delta had come to dominate, representing a majority of new cases and on a clear track to become ubiquitous, driving the fourth wave and pushing case numbers to their highest since April.

Amid the Delta wave, B.C. saw mounting hospitalizations and deaths. At least 568 fatalities — almost a quarter of all B.C. COVID deaths — were recorded between Sept. 1 and Dec. 15.

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Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Delta a bigger concern than Omicron in B.C.' Health Matters: Delta a bigger concern than Omicron in B.C.
Health Matters: Delta a bigger concern than Omicron in B.C – Dec 8, 2021

The year ended with the rise of yet another concerning variant, dubbed Omicron, initially detected in South Africa.

Early evidence has suggested the variant may be less dangerous than earlier forms, but researchers say it is too soon to be sure.

What is known with certainty is that Omicron is the most transmissible variant yet, and by December was driving record B.C. case numbers, particularly in the highly-vaccinated Vancouver Coastal Health region.

B.C. modelling found under a worst-case scenario it could push the province’s daily new case numbers over 2,000, an estimate that has proven conservative given the province recorded more than 4,300 cases on Dec. 30.

Read more: Omicron spreading at rate not seen with any other COVID-19 variant, WHO says

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Some experts have recommended vaccine booster shots as a defence.

The rise of the variant spurred the federal government to bar visitors from a number of African countries and increase testing for returning Canadians, and later advise against international travel.

However, unlike some other provinces, British Columbia has not sped up access to booster shots and has so far resisted implementing any new restrictions as a response.

Restriction rollercoaster

British Columbia began 2021 still in the grips of the second wave of the pandemic, and under tight province-wide restrictions, and ended 2021 in the grips of a fifth wave, and under tight province-wide restrictions.

The restrictions that began the year, however, were unprecedented — including an outright ban on all in-person gatherings, a ban on in-person religious services, indoor and outdoor adult team sports, concerts, movies and other indoor performances.

Restaurants were permitted to stay open, with group size limits and COVD-19 safety plans in place.

On March 11, restrictions were finally eased slightly to allow people to gather outdoors in groups of 10 or fewer — but it wasn’t long before the pendulum swung in the other direction, with the province implementing its harshest restrictions to date.

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On March 29, amid the third wave, the province introduced a second “circuit breaker” ordering bars and restaurants to close except to patio or take-out service.

Gyms and fitness centres were restricted to individual or one-on-one activities only including one-on-one personal training and plans to ease restrictions on indoor worship services for a variety of religious holidays were scrapped.

In a provincial first, non-essential travel was banned between three provincial zones: Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the Interior/North, with RCMP enforcing travel checkpoints.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: B.C.’s top doctor on safety of ‘normal social contact’ and when hugging can resume' COVID-19: B.C.’s top doctor on safety of ‘normal social contact’ and when hugging can resume
COVID-19: B.C.’s top doctor on safety of ‘normal social contact’ and when hugging can resume – May 25, 2021

Restrictions remained in place until after the May long weekend when the province began rolling out its “Restart 2.0” plan amid steadily decreasing new case numbers.

Under the first phase of the plan, British Columbians were allowed to have visitors in their home for the first time in seven months — though capped at five guests or one visiting household.

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Indoor religious services, with reduced capacity, were also allowed to resume for the first time since November 2020, restaurants were also allowed to reopen with group size limits and safety plans, while outdoor sports and low-intensity gym activities resumed.

Travel restrictions weren’t lifted until June 15, when the caps on indoor and outdoor events were raised to 50 — allowing movie theatres to reopen with limited capacity — and restrictions on religious gatherings, fitness activities and restaurants were further loosened.

Then, two weeks later, citing the ongoing drop case numbers and hospitalizations, the province moved to Step 3 of its plan.

“While the dangers and risks of COVID-19 have not passed, British Columbians are more confident and we’re acting in a way that will allow us to take that next step,” said Premier John Horgan.

Under the new rules, B.C. dropped its mandatory mask order and eliminated restrictions on personal gatherings. Restrictions were again loosened on organized events, and group size limits were dropped on restaurants.

Click to play video: 'Covid-19: New restrictions now in effect in British Columbia' Covid-19: New restrictions now in effect in British Columbia
Covid-19: New restrictions now in effect in British Columbia – Dec 23, 2021

But the arrival of the Delta variant put the brakes on any further relaxations of restrictions.

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In early August, the province implemented new regional restrictions in the Central Okanagan amid a rapid rise in cases. A number of those restrictions were then extended across Interior Health, and later to the Northern Health region and Eastern Fraser Valley. Restrictions in Interior Health were lifted at the end of November.

By late August, the province had reimplemented its order mandating masks in indoor public places.

Delta also forced the province to postpone its goal of early September to move to step 4 of its reopening plan, a virtual full “return to normal.”

As case numbers surged in December with the arrival of the Omicron variant, the province came full-circle, re-implementing a suite of restrictions just days before Christmas.

While the 2021 restrictions weren’t as strict as in 2020 — personal gatherings of residents plus 10 visitors or one household, provided everyone is vaccinated were permitted this year — they remained significant.

All indoor organized gatherings, including New Year’s Eve events, were cancelled, bars, nightclubs, gyms and fitness centres were closed and seated events were limited to 50 per cent capacity.

COVID protests grow

While 2020 saw plenty of disputes and dissent over COVID-19 measures, at some points violent, the conflict intensified in 2021 with the arrival of the vaccines and stricter restrictions.

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Opponents of restrictions and vaccine mandates held multiple “freedom rallies” throughout the year, with regular protests in Vancouver and Kelowna, some attracting hundreds of people.

Click to play video: '‘Get out!’: Crowd chants health inspectors out of B.C. restaurant breaking COVID-19 health order' ‘Get out!’: Crowd chants health inspectors out of B.C. restaurant breaking COVID-19 health order
‘Get out!’: Crowd chants health inspectors out of B.C. restaurant breaking COVID-19 health order – Apr 4, 2021

Some demonstrators said they were fighting for “medical freedom” and against government steps towards tyranny, while others maintained COVID-19 was a hoax or not serious enough to warrant government intervention.

Read more: Massive crowd gathers in downtown Kelowna for ‘freedom’ protest rally

The protests became the subject of significant controversy in September when opponents of COVID-19 measures targeted hospitals in multiple B.C. cities, prompting intense public backlash.

That backlash intensified later in September when an entire B.C. school district in the Okanagan was put on lockdown after protesters entered schools to deliver what they called “notices of liability” to administrators.

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Click to play video: 'Anti-vaccine and mandate protesters disrupt B.C. schools' Anti-vaccine and mandate protesters disrupt B.C. schools
Anti-vaccine and mandate protesters disrupt B.C. schools – Sep 17, 2021

The incidents prompted the B.C. government to introduce legislation to ban protests at schools and hospitals.

In December, vaccine mandate opponents came under fire over a protest at the B.C. legislature comparing the current situation to the executions of Nazi doctors where demonstrators hanged the premier and senior ministers in effigy. Organizers said those protesters were not affiliated with the event but refused to leave.

Read more: COVID-19: Protesters target several B.C. hospitals, decry vaccine ‘tyranny’

Early in 2021, some opponents of bans on in-person worship continued to hold church services, resulting in multiple violation tickets and eventually an unsuccessful B.C. Supreme Court challenge.

The province’s chief justice ruled in March that the ban did infringe on charter rights, but that the infringement was justified under the circumstances.

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Click to play video: 'Backlash and anger after anti-vaccine protestors target B.C. hospitals' Backlash and anger after anti-vaccine protestors target B.C. hospitals
Backlash and anger after anti-vaccine protestors target B.C. hospitals – Sep 2, 2021

The implementation of third-wave restrictions in the spring, and later the vaccine passport in September also saw several restaurants attempt to defy public health orders.

In April, Vancouver’s Corduroy Restaurant had its licence suspended for trying to stay open during a ban on in-person dining. Then, in October, it had its licence suspended again for serving customers without checking vaccine passports.

A restaurant in Hope also made headlines for its attempts to defy the vaccine passport program.

Rollie’s Restaurant had its licence pulled, but operated for several weeks in September in violation of the order before being forced to close after Fraser Health obtained a court injunction ordering it to be shuttered.

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