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B.C.'s top doctor warns businesses one-third of workforce could soon be off sick

“Anyone who can work from home, you should be able to do that,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry urged businesses to have a contingency plan for staff illnesses in the next few weeks, noting Omicron's high transmission rate and short incubation period. GOVERNMENT OF B.C.

The Omicron variant is now driving the majority of COVID-19 cases in B.C. and is spreading rapidly, with hospitalization and critical-care rates “slowly creeping up,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday, warning that one-third of the workforce could end up ill at home.

“Anyone who can work from home, you should be able to do that,” said Henry. “Whether you’re a private company, a school, a front-line business or a health-care site, now is the time that we have to prepare.”

On Tuesday, the province reported 2,542 new cases of COVID-19, including 360 in the Island Health region, which now has 3,113 active cases. There were four new COVID-19 deaths in B.C., including two in Island Health.

Of the 27,106 active cases of COVID-19 in the province, 298 are in hospital and 86 are in intensive care — up from 220 in hospital and 73 in intensive care on Friday.

“In the tug-of-war of transmission, Omicron has the advantage, and we see that in the rapidly increasing case numbers we’re seeing here and that we’re seeing around the world,” said Henry.

During a media briefing, Henry warned businesses to have a contingency plan for staff illnesses in the next few weeks, noting Omicron’s high transmission rate and short incubation period — a median of three days, down from six with Delta.

“We need to anticipate that as many as a third of your workforce at any one time may become ill with COVID-19, and they may not be able to come to work,” said Henry. She noted the latest strain is harder to detect, since it causes milder upper respiratory symptoms that could be very similar to a cold or influenza, at least early on. “We need to adapt businesses so we can operate at these reduced numbers.”

For at least the next few weeks, businesses must reactivate their COVID-19 safety plans, said Henry, who encouraged businesses to put in place vaccination mandates and require employees to declare their vaccination status.

Those unable to work will include health-care workers and educators, she said, affecting hospitals and schools.

“For most of us, thankfully because of our vaccinations, that will be a mostly mild illness,” said Henry. “But the interruption to our business continuity is something that we now need to think more carefully about.”

Vaccinated people who test positive for COVID are advised to isolate for at least five days or until their fever has broken and their symptoms have mostly resolved. They must wear a mask for an extra five days. Unvaccinated people must isolate for at least 10 days.

The decision last week to reduce the self-isolation requirement came as a higher number of health-care workers were forced to stay home from work due to illness, Henry said.

She said workplaces need to ensure all COVID protection measures are in place, ­including vaccination, proper use of well-fitting three-layer masks, ­keeping a distance, having fewer people in the same location at once and staggering shift days or start times and break times.

Vaccination won’t stop ­everyone from being infected by Omicron, but it will ­significantly reduce the ­likelihood of severe illness and being off work longer, said Henry.

“It means that we can come back after that shorter five-day isolation period, and it means that the risk of having long-term symptoms is reduced.”

Henry urged employers to ensure that multiple staff members are not eating lunch in a small, poorly ventilated room together, and reminded those who are feeling unwell to isolate and not to attend any gatherings, no matter how small.

Testing capacity has been overwhelmed and needs to be limited to people with underlying risk factors who are vulnerable to serious illness, she said.

Since booster shots are administered six months after the second shot, essential workers, including grocery-store employees and teachers, won’t be prioritized for boosters, but because they received their initial COVID vaccines sooner than others, they will get their boosters more quickly, Henry said.

Robert Jay, vice-president of Fairway Markets, said so far, the stores have not experienced increased staffing shortages due to the Omicron variant.

“We are concerned about the spread of the Omicron variant,” said Jay, “but we have had procedures in place since Day 1. We’ll be keeping up with those safety precautions.”

Henry said “everything” British Columbians have done so far to protect themselves from COVID-19 has made a difference. “So many people in B.C. are vaccinated or getting our booster shots and using those many layers of protection for keeping distances, wearing masks, staying home if we’re feeling unwell — this is the right thing to do.”