Photo: Justin Paget/Getty Images
An independent group of health scientists, doctors and teachers is calling on the BC government to declare a three-week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown to reduce infection rates in schools, businesses and systems health.
The call comes less than 24 hours after the province recorded 4,383 cases of COVID-19, the highest single-day total of new cases since the pandemic began. (British Columbia reported 3,795 new infections on Friday.)
With provincial lab testing capacity overwhelmed, the total number of cases is expected to be much higher.
A three-week “circuit breaker,” a Protecting Our Province (PoP BC) panel said during a Zoom meeting on Friday, would help reduce community transmission. It would also give schools time to step up safety measures and businesses to predictably recover some of their sick workforce.
“We’re calling for a circuit breaker not because we wanted to, but because we’re at this point, because it can’t be stopped anymore,” said panel member, UBC professor Dr. Amy Tan. and physician in family and family medicine. palliative medicine.
Tan said without a large-scale shutdown, many people will be unable to access federal aid, which will create more hardship in the long run.
“So why not just rip the bandage off in one fell swoop and have us all collectively do what’s needed right now, rather than hanging around, causing chaos…?”
AIRBORNE OR NOT?
British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced Friday that the province is dropping the self-isolation period for fully vaccinated residents with breakthrough infections for seven to five days. The measure follows recent similar guidance from the US Center for Disease Control and comes amid a flurry of announcements, from a change in BC’s recall strategy to restricting visitors in long-term care homes.
Earlier this week, the province announced it would delay the return to school until January 10. At the time, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the one-week delay would be used to make schools safer amid a rise in cases.
But PoP BC member Jen Heighton – also a teacher and co-founder of Safe Schools Coalition BC – criticized the province’s week-long school delay as insufficient time to protect schools from the new variant. Many schools in the province, she said, still lack adequate ventilation to keep children safe.
Over the past two years, the province has invested $325 million to improve ventilation in schools, Minister Whiteside said earlier this week.
In a series of tweets on Wednesday, the BC Teachers’ Federation pushed back, saying adequate ventilation — along with free N95 masks, rapid tests and staggered schedule plans — was still lacking “in many schools”.
“We haven’t seen any details yet on what that money was spent on,” Heighton said. “And the little we’ve received shows that a lot of that money has actually been spent just on regular maintenance and upgrades versus the changes that actually need to be made to prevent the transmission of a pathogen. suspended in the air.”
PoP BC panelist Dr. Lyne Filiatrault criticized the province for failing to address the spread of COVID-19 through the air over long distances.
Evidence that COVID-19 spreads through the air has emerged in environments even with heightened security measures. In one case, a fully vaccinated traveler staying in a quarantine hotel in Hong Kong reportedly transmitted the Omicron variant to another Canadian traveler across the hall despite strict quarantine precautions.
“Until we address the fact that the virus is spread by aerosols – not just by air but by aerosols – none of the measures that we are going to put in place, whether in schools, healthcare long term or hospitals, is not going to be enough,” Filiatrault said.
A LAST RESORT
PoP BC’s Dr Karina Zeidler said her recommendation to move to a three-week lockdown is solely due to “public health’s failure to be able to proactively manage our Omicron wave”.
Zeidler cited the group’s previous calls to speed up rapid antigen testing as a surveillance tool in low-risk situations.
“Of course they kept saying they didn’t have tests, it was too complicated to use the tests, people couldn’t use a test at home. And then now they are distributed to testing sites in order to diagnose COVID,” Zeidler said.
Some British Columbia health authorities have turned to rapid antigen testing as a way to reduce demand for a laboratory testing system as much as possible.
When freezing temperatures shut down many drive-thru test collection centers in Metro Vancouver, steady streams of visitors flocked to UBC to collect rapid antigen tests from the lobby of the life sciences building in the city. ‘university.
Others, who chose to line up at a collection center in North Vancouver – one of the few open – waited hours to be given a rapid test, as part of a triage system to book laboratory tests to the most vulnerable people.
“They’re definitely used as a ‘Uh oh, we can’t track these PCR tests.’ But certainly not with a systematic approach,” said Dr. Eric Cytrynbaum, professor of mathematics at UBC and member of the BC COVID-19 Independent Modeling Group.
Cytrynbaum said rapid antigen tests offer a number of advantages — they are relatively easy to use, provide relief to healthcare workers, and can detect both symptomatic and presymptomatic individuals, albeit in a shorter window than laboratory tests.
The problem? None of the positive cases are counted.
By losing control of the number of cases in British Columbia, experts say they have lost their main measure to project and plan for what is to come.
“You have to wait for people to end up in the hospital, so having cases to predict hospitalizations gives you some time,” Cytrynbaum said.
Cytrynbaum said the independent modeling group was forced to turn to sewage data, which he says doesn’t do much to prepare for a spike in hospitalizations.
Could a better system for rapid self-reporting of antigen results help?
“It would be better than what we are doing now. This would give us an idea of what is going on,” the researcher said.
RAPID TESTS NOT ADAPTED TO THE PURPOSE
Cytrynbaum said rapid tests make sense for adding a layer of protection when visiting a grandparent, additional testing during an outbreak at school or in the workplace or when symptomatic people are not cannot go to a test site. With two tests, it can even work as a backup for people in remote areas.
Rapid tests like the Abbott Panbio have been shown to pick up positive cases nine out of 10 times. False positives, meanwhile, often show up in one in 200 uninfected people. With a second test – what Cytrynbaum called an “alternative protocol” – false positives would drop to one in 40,000.
But at Vancouver Coastal Health, those who test positive have been asked to take the result alone as proof that you have COVID-19 and self-isolate for seven days (at least before the provincial health officer, the Dr. Bonnie Henry, announced on Friday that self-isolation for vaccinated individuals would drop to five days). In times of crisis, what was meant to serve as a backup has become the status quo for thousands of British Columbians trying to figure out why they are sick.
Along with giving schools, health systems and businesses some breathing room, a three-week “circuit breaker” would give the BC government a chance to reevaluate its rapid testing policy, PoP BC said.
Filiatrault points to Nova Scotia, a province with a longer track record of rapid testing and where residents are offered five tests at a time to ensure people aren’t coming out of isolation too soon. But with a test, Filiatrault said British Columbians could be fooled.
“What’s going to happen in British Columbia: people are going to do a quick test, they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, okay, I know I don’t have it.’
“Well, actually, they’re just incubating.”