Rob Shaw: Over several stages, public health officials prepare to transition from mandates to roll with events as they come.
Like much of the world, BC blew through its “restart” plan for COVID-19 a long time ago. There were four phases of carefully-measured metrics and dates – and we made it through three of them before a wave of Delta hurdled us irrevocably off course.
Since then we’ve mostly just been winging it, like everywhere else.
But as Omicron peaks, talk has once again turned to getting back to normal.
This time though, it appears BC is going to skip the measurements, benchmarks, phases, and deadlines that made up our previous re-opening plans, in favour of a much more elastic and unwritten approach to roll with events as they unfold.
At least that’s the impression from listening to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry the last few days, as she’s outlined a potential relaxation of public health restrictions.
“We know that COVID-10, this virus, is going to be with us for some time still,” she said.
“But we are progressing through this surge, which means we can look very soon at starting to gradually ease restrictions in the weeks ahead, as we get closer and we put limits on some of the restrictions, on events and gatherings, that will be coming up for review in the middle of February. We will look at where we are in our journey through this phase by that time.”
Here’s how the next few months could play out for BC, based on Dr. Henry’s most recent comments.
The aim is to by Family Day, Feb. 21, relax some of the restrictions that have closed bars, nightclubs, and event centres, as well as placed capacity limits on major sporting events, theatre and concerts.
“It will not be a flick of the switch,” cautioned Dr. Henry. “It will be, again, increasing the dimmer switch, a gradual turning of the dial so that we can do this cautiously and not put people at risk as we’re getting closer and closer to the end of this wave.”
Still, Family Day is clearly BC’s next marker in its unofficial and newly-evolving reopening plan.
The call on whether to lift certain restrictions will be made Feb. 15, she said.
After Family Day, the next marker on the unofficial plan is the start of spring, March 20.
BC will look to see if it can ease restrictions on large gatherings, allowing wedding receptions and parties to perhaps return, said Dr. Henry.
During this period, BC schools could also return to near-normal, with assemblies, tournaments, concerts and other events.
“I do think at some point we’re going to get to a place where we can think about having those important life events again in a limited way and gradually increasing that to a place where we can have larger groups of people together for wedding ceremonies and celebrations of life and birthday parties and all those important things that we have been missing this last few months,” she said.
The spring changes will depend on seeing key COVID metrics decline – though BC isn’t putting any hard and fast numbers on anything like last time. But it seems likely the freedoms will mainly extend to those who are vaccinated at this point.
“It will depend on decreasing circulation rates in our community and our balancing in our health care system,” said Dr. Henry.
“I do think by the time we get to spring we’re going to be in a very different place, I hope, at least for a period of time, and this is my speculating a little bit with recognizing my optimism bias, but I do think with the level of immunity that we have, with the level of protection we have through vaccination, with the amount of milder illness in those vaccinated people that gives a boost to you immunity for a period of time as well, that we’re likely to have a gentler spring and hopefully summer.”
Between late March and the start of summer on June 21, Dr. Henry has said BC will look at whether it can end the mandatory vaccination requirement to eat inside restaurants, visit certain businesses and attend indoor social events. The vaccinated and unvaccinated would then be co-mingling freely.
The vaccination card is the last major line of BC’s COVID-19 defence, and when it falls the province’s return to pre-pandemic normal will be almost complete.
Along with it could go the mandatory indoor mask requirement, as Dr. Henry has linked the vaccine card, masks, and capacity limits as the best ways to reduce risk in indoor settings. If BC can relax one, it seems likely the others would follow.
This period could be as near to normal as BC has seen since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Here’s where things get dicey.
By September, health officials will be watching to see what dominant variant of COVID-19 is circling as the province enters flu season.
The severity of that variant, how quickly it spreads, how many people it puts in hospital and the strain on the health care system will all need to be quickly recalculated to determine if any of the public health restrictions that were lifted in previous months need to go back on, said Dr. Henry.
“We’ll need to prepare ourselves in all areas for more unknowns come the fall because it is pretty sure that this virus is going to come back in some form in the fall,” she said.
“Hopefully it’ll be in a form that we still have good protection from the booster doses of vaccine that we’ve had and that we can manage our health care system.”
It’s not hard to imagine a fall where indoor masks return, along with other potential limits. Perhaps even another round of booster doses goes on the table. But it’s hard to know for sure so far in advance.
Beyond the fall, nobody knows. Speculating would be foolish.
“We know that COVID-19 will be here with us for some time,” said Dr. Henry.
“It’s not done with us yet. New variants will surely emerge. Immunity will wane, whether that’s from infection or from vaccination and we know that there is a seasonality and next fall will bring the increase risk of transmission again. We need to prepare for that.
“But we do know that we can get through this and we will reach a point where we no longer need public health orders, where we no longer need those extraordinary societal efforts and we can rely on each other to do those individual and collective things that make a difference.”
Let’s hope we get there in 2022, even if the plan is to mostly roll with events as they come.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.