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New B.C. restrictions not enough to curb Omicron without boosters sooner: expert

Click to play video: 'B.C. sticking with Six-month timeline for booster doses'
B.C. sticking with Six-month timeline for booster doses
With the rapid rise of the Omicron variant, many experts are calling for B.C. to follow the lead of other Provinces and shorten the wait time for booster doses, but Dr. Bonnie Henry is sticking with B.C's six-month timeline. Aaron McArthur reports – Dec 17, 2021

An expert on the spread of COVID-19 in British Columbia says new restrictions announced Friday to curb the Omicron variant likely won’t be enough unless the province can speed up the delivery of booster doses.

B.C. announced a suite of new measures, including restrictions on personal gatherings and reduced capacity for major events, amid surging case numbers.

Click to play video: 'Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why B.C. not speeding up booster doses'
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why B.C. not speeding up booster doses

The daily new case rate has doubled over the last week, driven largely by transmission in the Lower Mainland.

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Read more: B.C. enacts social gathering and event capacity limits as Omicron variant spreads

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“I don’t think it’s going to be enough to blunt that (exponential growth), and I think it’s actually a major question for the public and for governments to decide: Are we going to go into lockdown on this?” Sarah Otto, a UBC mathematical biologist and member of the independent B.C. COVID-19 Modelling Group, said.

“That would be what we need to blunt it. Honestly, I think what we need to do is just buy us enough time to get those boosters out and we have to ramp them up because … it means each individual (will have) enough antibodies to ward off Omicron.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: B.C. announces enhanced public health measures including capacity limits'
COVID-19: B.C. announces enhanced public health measures including capacity limits

The Omicron variant has proven to be far more transmissible than its predecessors, even among vaccinated people, and while early indications are that it may be a milder infection, experts say there is not enough evidence to be sure.

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There is also evidence that a third shot of vaccine is effective at curbing the new variant, which has prompted a number of provinces to speed up their booster programs to three months after a second dose, rather than the six to eight months recommended by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

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In Ontario, anyone aged 18 and over will be eligible for a booster shot as of Monday.

“Omicron is changing the science, changing the picture entirely. We’re seeing that our vaccinations are not lasting as long in protection against Omicron, at least in terms of infection,” Otto said.

“What that means is in order to avoid getting infection, we really need a booster, we need vaccines within two to three months, not six months — and that’s why scientists like myself and others are really calling for accelerating booster doses as fast as we can.”

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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province continues to rely on evidence that the six- to eight-month gap provides both a stronger and a longer immune response, and that the booster program was meant to protect people from both the Omicron variant and any future waves of the virus.

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She said officials had initially been aiming for eight months for younger people, but were now aiming for six months, amid the spread of Omicron.

“We’re focusing on ramping up our immunization program so we can get most people at six months, and we did it a little bit early for some of those people at high risk who didn’t have a strong immune response, but for most of us, it’s going to be six months after dose two,” Henry said.

“For most people, that means in the next few weeks, you’ll be getting your invitations.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Rising cases in two B.C. health regions'
COVID-19: Rising cases in two B.C. health regions

Health Minister Adrian Dix defended B.C.’s booster rollout, arguing that the province had made the strategic decision to prioritize people most at risk.

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He said the combination of vaccine mandates and accelerated booster doses for people in long-term care and assisted living has cut the number of outbreaks in those facilities from more than 20 in November to zero as of Friday.

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“I don’t believe other provinces have done what we have done, which is to focus on the clinically extremely vulnerable, and the well over 100,000 people who have got their vaccinations,” Dix said.

“This will be worth its weight in gold for those people, their families, the health-care system and everyone in British Columbia, who I know would support people who are living with cancer and significant immune suppressing diseases and challenges.”

Just over 12 per cent of B.C.’s population has received a booster dose so far.

As of Thursday, British Columbia had confirmed 135 cases of the Omicron variant, more than triple the number reported just two days earlier.

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