‘We cannot eliminate all risk’: B.C. starting to manage COVID-19 more like common cold, officials say

British Columbia is beginning to manage COVID-19 more like the common cold, the province’s top doctor said Friday while explaining major shifts in the government’s approach to the pandemic.

While contact-tracing was a foundational part of the provincial COVID-19 response for the better part of two years, officials largely abandoned that tool weeks ago, deeming it ineffective in the face of Omicron’s rapid spread and shorter incubation period.

They began discouraging PCR testing for most of the population around the same time, reserving limited capacity for health-care workers, seniors and others at higher risk.

Earlier this week, the government also updated self-isolation guidelines, removing the minimum length of time many adults need to stay home after catching the virus.

“I absolutely recognize this as a shift. It means we have to change our way of thinking that we have been working on so intently together for the last two years,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said at a news conference.

“But we are all familiar with these new measures. They’re much like how we manage other respiratory illnesses – influenza, or RSV, or enteroviruses that cause the common cold.”

For the time being, the province’s recommendations largely revolve around self-management, meaning that individuals should be assessing themselves for symptoms on a daily basis. Anyone who has even mild symptoms, such as a sore throat, should stay home until they feel better.

But for those who didn’t experience severe symptoms and were never tested, there is no longer a minimum amount of time that they must keep away from the public. Previously, they were told to selfi-isolate for at least five days.

“We cannot eliminate all risk,” Henry said. “And I think that’s something that we need to understand and accept. As this virus has changed, it’s become part of what we will be living with for years to come.”

The same layers of protection that have been recommended since early in the pandemic remain important for reducing the spread, Henry said. That includes regular hand-washing, wearing quality masks indoors, and keeping groups small.

People who are at higher risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19, such as the immunocompromised, are also advised to be extra cautious.

Unlike colds and flus, COVID-19 is also still considered dangerous enough to warrant a number of impactful public health measures. Bars and nightclubs remain closed province-wide, while arenas, movie theatres and other venues are still limited to 50 per cent capacity. Organized events such as wedding and funeral receptions are still on pause, and providing proof of vaccination is required for many activities.

While transmission for the Omicron wave is believed to have peaked in B.C. earlier this month, hospitalizations and deaths have yet to subside.

The 15 coronavirus-related deaths reported Thursday pushed the province’s seven-day average to a three-month high of 8.29 per day. The number of test-positive patients in hospital reached an all-time high of 895 on Wednesday, though many are what’s known as incidental cases, meaning the patient was hospitalized for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.

Health officials continue to strongly recommend vaccination, pointing to an ever-growing mass of “incontrovertible evidence” that it dramatically reduces the chances of severe illness from COVID-19. Vaccine protection also reduces – but does not eliminate – the chances of catching the virus and transmitting it to others, Henry said.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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