Editor’s note: a previous version of this story said the province had acknowledged the “airborne” spread of Omicron. In fact, officials acknowledged the increased risk of aerosol transmission, but did not describe it as airborne by the ‘definitions we use in a health-care setting.’
British Columbia has hit its capacity to test for COVID-19. If you don’t have symptoms or do, but aren’t in a high-risk category, you should isolate at home and assume you have the virus.
That was the message from B.C. health officials at a Friday press conference ahead of the Christmas holiday, as case numbers surge in the province driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said much about the variant — particularly how severe an illness it produces — remains unknown, but that its high transmissibility has the ability to break through double doses of vaccine and to re-infect people who’ve already had COVID means B.C. was in a “different game now.”
Omicron now represents more than half of all new cases, and is expected to be dominant by next week.
The variant’s incubation period appears to have been cut in half, meaning people are often able to spread it before they know they have it, Henry added.
In a shift in messaging, Henry also acknowledged the greater spread of the Omicron variant in the air was a factor in its high transmissibility.
“Those smaller particles, or aerosols, are much more (easier to) import, and it can spread more easily, especially during activities like singing, talking closely to each other indoors where ventilation is poor, or breathing hard,” she said.
“The relative importance of different size of droplets depends on the infectiousness of the different strains. So it becomes much more important to have protection against those aerosols, those smaller droplets, and really it’s a combination of physics. So if a smaller droplet, an aerosol has less virus in it, but that virus is more infection, you can get infected with those smaller droplets.”
Henry stopped short of describing the virus as airborne according to the “definitions we use in a health-care setting” which she said would mean the virus was suspended in the air and travelling long distance, as with measles or chicken pox.
Given the higher chance of aerosol spread in high-risk environments, such as indoors or at close proximity, should consider upgrading to higher quality medical masks, N95 masks or double masks, she said.
British Columbia is now conducting more than 20,000 PCR tests per day, the limit under the resources available, Henry said.
She acknowledged that the province was now triaging testing to “those who really need it” — people with serious symptoms, or who are in a higher-risk category because they are over the age of 65, vulnerable or work in a setting such as healthcare.
“Yes, there is triage happening at the testing stations, particularly in Vancouver and Fraser Health, where we have had long lineups,” Henry said.
“Do not go to a testing centre unless you have symptoms. And then we need to preserve the more accurate PCR testing for those who really need it. The testing centres are not for pre-travel screening, nor do they give you a green light to spend time with others.”
People who have symptoms but are not in a high-risk category were being sent home with rapid tests, Henry said.
Anyone who develops symptoms and is not in a high-risk category was told to stay home and isolate for seven days if they are vaccinated, and for 10 days if they are unvaccinated — even if it means missing holiday gatherings.
“If you have any symptoms, you must assume you have COVID and take steps to avoid passing it on,” Henry said.
“This means if you are at all sick right now, even if you think it isn’t COVID, even if you think it is just a mild cold or flu, you need to take precautions and stay away from others, particularly people who may be at risk because their immune systems aren’t working so well, because they have not been vaccinated, or because they are older or younger.”
If anyone in your social network has tested positive, is waiting for test results or is self-isolating, you should consider yourself to be potentially exposed and avoid group gatherings as well, she said.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C. had administered more than 800,000 booster shots, but said the province was sticking to its plan of vaccinating the most vulnerable categories of people first.
“Our program continues to be targeted at those who are at the greatest risk, and this is one of the ways we can prevent and help prevent the most severe outcomes from COVID-19 and the Omicron variant,” Dix said.
More than three-quarters of British Columbians over the age of 70 have had their booster shot, as have more than 135,000 people deemed “clinically extremely vulnerable,” more than 30,000 people who had two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and tens of thousands of health-care workers.
People aged 63 and 64 became eligible to book a third dose on Thursday, he said.
Booster shots are not expected to be available for most British Columbians until the new year, with invites going to people between six and eight months after their second dose.