British Columbia has lifted pandemic restrictions including mandatory mask-wearing in health-care settings, and proof of vaccination and COVID test results for visitors in care homes.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday that existing requirements for health-care workers to be fully vaccinated would remain, but the steady decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations indicated the province was “emerging” from the pandemic.
Henry said that despite the continued presence of COVID-19 infections in the next few months, authorities were likely to be able to say that B.C. was no longer in a pandemic.
The lifting of restrictions took effect immediately, but Henry said it did not mean such restrictions would not return in the fall, as experts were still studying the seasonality of COVID.
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province would start its spring booster vaccine program on April 11, targeting people with the highest risk of severe COVID infections such as those over 80 or with compromised immune systems.
Dix said the province hoped to have the spring booster program completed by May.
Henry also said the province had not decided on an immunization plan for COVID beyond the spring, but data had shown that “hybrid immunity,” stemming from a mix of vaccinations and infections was longer-lasting than immunity granted from either alone.
“That hybrid immunity gives us a lot of buffer,” Henry said. “So, it protects not only us as individuals, but the fact that we have a level of immunity in our community means those people who don’t respond as well to vaccines or whose immunity wanes are protected because the rest of us are protected, too.”
She said the continued requirement for health care workers to be fully vaccinated allowed the other restrictions to be lifted.
“That protects ourselves, each other and the settings that we work in,” she said. “And that’s one of the reasons why we have the confidence in moving ahead with removing some of the other restrictions in those settings now.”
The province said it has been tracking COVID-19’s spread in B.C. over the winter respiratory season through a number of means, including a more-sensitive wastewater test since March.
While those tests are detecting more of the virus than in the past due to their increased sensitivity, the overall trend shows COVID-19 infection levels “stable or decreasing at all sites,” Henry said.
Both Henry and Dix said that while the trends are encouraging, COVID infections are still happening, and people should remain vigilant and maintain good practices, such as staying home when sick, washing hands regularly and coughing into sleeves.
“The pandemic, of course, continues,” Dix said. “And we have adapted again and again. But some of the fundamental principles that we’ve learned together in this time are important, and they bear repeating.”
Henry also said that people with symptoms will continue to be required to wear masks, and the adoption of the changes may be uneven throughout medical facilities in B.C.
“As we’ve seen all along with every change, it takes time for these things to happen,” she said. “So, I encourage patience and kindness if you are going into a long-term care home or a health-care facility in the next few days.”
B.C. Green Party Deputy Leader Dr. Sanjiv Gandhi said in a statement that he is “deeply disappointed” with the lifting of masking requirements at health-care settings.
Gandhi, the former chief of cardiac surgery at BC Children’s Hospital, said the province’s decision to lift such mandates removes one of the last lines of defence for B.C.’s most vulnerable population against COVID transmission.
“No uniform clean air policies were discussed,” Gandhi said of Henry’s announcement. “This is all at a time when health care professionals are now encouraged to return to work even if they have active COVID infections, somehow ignoring the fact that transmissibility of this virus does not correlate with clinical symptoms ….”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2023.
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