The first case of the newest COVID-19 variant of concern, Omicron, has been detected in B.C., in a patient in the Fraser Health Authority who recently returned from Nigeria.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said 900 to 1,000 people had travelled to Canada from southern Africa in the past few days. Of those, 204 arrived in B.C., including the infected person, who is now isolating.
The case was detected via whole genome sequencing, which is done for anyone who tests positive for COVID‑19 after travelling internationally, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
She said “we can be confident” that widespread transmission of the variant in B.C. has not yet occurred.
Preliminary evidence suggests the new variant transmits more easily, but it will take many weeks to get sufficient data to better understand whether it causes more severe illness or causes vaccines to be less effective, Henry said. “We know that these concerning mutations can arise, and where vaccination is low in parts of the world, they can spread rapidly.”
Omicron follows four other variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. Delta has been dominant in B.C.
Henry said 99.6 per cent of cases in B.C. remain the Delta strains AY 25 and AY 27, with a smattering of AY 4.2 — dubbed the Delta variant plus. Whether Omicron will out- compete Delta in this province is unknown at this point, she said.
Omicron was identified in South Africa after a spike in infections, but it is unclear where it first emerged. Cases have been reported in countries around the world.
Alberta was the third province in Canada to report the presence of the Omicron variant. Ontario announced its first cases on Sunday and Quebec reported its first case on Monday.
Omicron is a reminder “that we are in a global storm” and that it’s important that everyone has equal access to vaccination around the world to get to the end of the pandemic, Henry said.
COVID vaccines remain the best defence along with other measures, including wearing masks indoors, she said.
The arrival of the new variant amid flu and holiday season is a reminder to be cautious in the next few weeks, and continue to wear masks in indoor crowded spaces, practise physical distancing, keep gatherings small and include only vaccinated individuals, Henry said.
“We must anticipate and plan for the worst, even as we hope that this strain will not cause the havoc we have seen with some others.”
Henry also cautioned against travelling abroad over the holiday season.
On Tuesday, Henry made face masks mandatory for everyone age five and older attending worship service, including choirs. They can only be removed for eating and drinking and ceremonial activities. Worship services are also being limited to 50 per cent capacity unless all participants are vaccinated, in which case 100 per cent capacity is permitted.
Henry repealed additional restrictions in Interior Health due to a levelling off of transmissions and hospitalizations, while restrictions in Northern Health now have an expiry of Jan. 31.
Those restrictions include that bars and nightclubs remain closed, restaurants must continue to end their liquor service at 10 p.m. and no in-person worship services are allowed.
In B.C., 87 per cent of people age 12 and older are fully vaccinated.
Dix said 114,106 children ages five to 11 are registered to receive pediatric vaccines, while almost 420,000 booster shots have been administered to residents of senior homes, people who are clinically vulnerable and seniors in the community age 70 and older.
> Online registration for vaccination: getvaccinated.gov.bc.ca