What’s going on with COVID-19? Your guide to restrictions, vaccines, and what is on the horizon

News Provincial
vaccines graphic
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

The last few months have seen a rise in COVID-19 cases, with some estimates suggesting that B.C. could soon be up to over 2 000 new cases per day. In response, the province announced what they call “circuit-breaker” restrictions on March 29, and extended them on April 19 to last until after Victoria Day long weekend in May. The province has also announced they will be developing enforceable restrictions to prevent non-essential travel. 

Over one million people, roughly one-fifth of the province, have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The rest of the adult population will receive their jab by July. However, the rollout continues to be slow and punctuated with delays. 

Depending on who you ask, B.C. is in the throes of a third wave of COVID-19 or in sight of the light at the end of the tunnel. But where do we really stand in the COVID-19 fight? Here are some updates on the latest vaccine news, what restrictions are in place, and when we can expect to return to some sense of normalcy.

The tangled web of restrictions

COVID-19 restrictions can be tricky to figure out. The provincial government has frequently changed restrictions based on case numbers and other concerns. Currently, the province has a diverse range of restrictions ranging from who you can see to what sports you can play, so we broke down what all of this means for your life.

Since November, British Columbians are advised not to socialize with people outside of their immediate households, or, for those living alone, with no more than two friends or family members. On March 11 Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry permitted outdoor social gatherings of up to 10 people, provided that individuals stick to the same 10 people and maintain precautions like physical distancing and wearing masks. 

Although indoor social gatherings are still limited to your immediate household, you can now visit outside with friends for a coffee or a picnic in the park if they are part of your 10-person social circle. However, the government is now discouraging meeting up with this expanded circle as cases continue to rise.

The province is still concerned about the possible transmission of COVID-19 at gathering spots such as pubs or restaurants, which led to the shutdown of all indoor dining on March 29. This new public health order was extended on April 19 to after the long weekend in May. Outdoor patio service is still available for restaurants as long as physical-distancing requirements of six-foot distancing and no more than six people per table are maintained. People are expected to only attend restaurants with the members of their households.

Although B.C. has long maintained a recommendation against non-essential travel, the province has announced it will be developing a public health order to limit non-essential travel between health authorities and from outside the province. The measures will include limitations on campground bookings, prohibition of recreational vehicles on BC Ferries, signs along the B.C.-Alberta border, and enforcement through roadside checkpoints.

Premier John Horgan said that people should not be travelling out of their health authority to visit family and friends. University students can still travel home at the end of the semester. 

Some other restrictions to be aware of are bans on both indoor high- and low-intensity group physical activity. Indoor religious gatherings are also prohibited. Additionally, spectators are still banned at sporting events and indoor funerals are limited to 10 people plus an officiant. A full list of restrictions can be found on the province’s website

The vaccine merry-go-round

Many of the key questions regarding the pandemic are about vaccines. Are they safe? Do they work? When will I get one? With B.C., and Canada as a whole, lagging far behind countries like the U.S. and U.K. when it comes to vaccine rollout, it’s no wonder that British Columbians are impatient. 

First off, vaccines are extremely safe. While complications are rare, there have been some reports in Europe and the United States of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines causing blood clots. Two cases of blood clotting in Canada as a result of the AstraZeneca vaccine have also been recently reported.

Health officials have emphasized that the risks of the vaccine are far lower than those of getting complications from COVID-19. As of March 16, around 20 million people in the UK and Europe have received the vaccine. The European Medicines Agency reported only 7 cases of blood clots in multiple blood vessels and 18 cases of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis or blood clots in the brain. They also note that there is not a proven causal link between the vaccine and blood clots.  

Out of caution, the B.C. government temporarily stopped administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to those 55 or younger while it was reviewed by Health Canada. After conducting a review, federal health officials have cleared the vaccine for use and strongly encourage people to get whichever vaccine they are eligible for. B.C. has since expanded eligibility to people over 40.

Meanwhile, the American Center for Disease Control has recommended a pause in delivery of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for further study, due to the incidence of blood clots in six people. Once again, health officials emphasize that these side effects are extremely rare.

Canada has not announced any plans to cancel expected deliveries of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Although no doses of the vaccine have been delivered thus far in Canada, shipments are expected to start arriving at the end of April.

How to get vaccinated in B.C. 

There is a three-step process to get vaccinated.The first step is to register online. You will be asked for your first and last name, date of birth, postal code, personal health number (which can be found on the back of your BC Services Card), and primary email address or cell phone number. By April 23, everyone over 18 will be eligible to register.

Currently, people over 63 and Indigenous people over 18 are eligible to get vaccinated. People over the age of 40 can also get the AstraZeneca vaccine at an eligible pharmacy. The province estimates that everyone eligible will receive their first dose by the end of June.

Once you are registered, the province will contact you regarding booking an appointment. Although young people can technically register this week, those of us that are 18-25 likely won’t get contacted until much later. Once you’ve been contacted, you will be informed of where the nearest vaccination centre is by health authorities. Many centres are located in community and sports complexes across B.C. For example, UVic had a fully operating vaccine clinic until it closed on April 8 and moved to the larger Victoria Conference Centre. 

The last step is the easiest, and that is getting vaccinated. In preparation for your shot the province is recommending that British Columbians wear a short sleeve t-shirt. Masks are mandatory, and will be provided if you forgot to bring one. You can also bring one person with you for support. The total duration of the appointment at the clinic is 30 to 60 minutes. You will be contacted about your second dose anytime between a few weeks and four months after receiving your first dose. 

Special consideration is being given to vulnerable populations such as frontline workers, such as those who work in hospitals or grocery stores, and clinically vulnerable populations, such as those who have recently had an organ transplant, are suffering from cancer or respiratory diseases, or are otherwise immunocompromised. Those who are clinically vulnerable should have received a patient invitation letter by April 15 telling them how to register. If you haven’t received a letter but believe you are eligible, you can find out more information online or call 1-833-838-2323. B.C. originally planned to vaccinate some essential workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine, but that plan has since been stalled. 

Lastly, do COVID-19 vaccines work? All the available data appears to show, yes, with clinical trials showing efficacy rates of over 70 per cent for all approved vaccines. Efficacy rates are the protection rates against illness in those who have been vaccinated when compared to the general population. Pfizer and Moderna, the vaccines the majority of British Columbians will receive, have efficacy rates of roughly 95 per cent two weeks after you receive your second dose. For comparison, the average flu shot has an efficacy of 60 to 70 per cent.

One concern is that certain variants of COVID-19 may be resistant to the available vaccines. Although some studies have shown that several variants, such as the ones that originated in South Africa and Brazil, may be resistant to certain vaccines, large-scale studies have yet to be conducted. The continued spread of the virus also increases the potential of a vaccine-resistant variant developing. Thankfully, vaccine producers have stated that any needed tweaks to vaccines can be made relatively quickly. 

When will life return to normal?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a great answer to this question. 

While vaccine rollout is picking up with more and more people protected against the virus every day, there is still no consensus on when things will be back to normal and we can get on with our lives the way they were before the pandemic upended things. 

Health authorities are aiming to have all residents in B.C. who would like to receive a vaccine get their first dose by July 1, with their second dose coming by the end of 2021. Achieving this depends a great deal on receiving the required amount of doses and speeding up a rollout that has been slowed by distributors struggling to meet high demand as well as Canada’s reliance on imported vaccines.

Returning to normal life will also depend on making sure that variant cases remain under control and that enough people choose to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, which is estimated to be around a 70 per cent vaccination rate. 

Even though vaccine producers say they can quickly modify already developed vaccines if needed, a whole new rollout would take time allowing for easily transmissible variants to spread. Additionally, some British Columbians will inevitably choose not to get vaccinated either due to pre-existing health conditions or personal beliefs. This could allow for the virus to continue travelling and mutating amongst the population, potentially becoming resistant to our current vaccines.

Despite this pessimistic outlook, it is important to look to the brighter side of things. By the end of the year, we will hopefully all be vaccinated and transitioning back to a more normal life. It’s just going to take a few more months of patience until we get there.

The information in this article is current as of April 19, 2021.