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Smaller-group gatherings safer as flu season arrives amid Delta variant spread, Henry says

People who want to have large family gatherings should plan outdoor events, says Dr. Bonnie Henry
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Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the next few months is the peak risk period. Government of B.C.

Plan now for smaller-group gatherings over the holidays as a “peak period” of risk begins for both the pandemic and other respiratory illnesses, says B.C.’s provincial health officer. “Now that we’re starting to see other respiratory viruses — that we’re going through the peak risk period in the next few months — we can’t afford to have gaps in protection,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry. “This pandemic is still very much here.”

On Tuesday, the province reported 500 new cases of COVID‑19, including 76 in Island Health, for a total of 4,301 active cases in B.C. There were 613 active cases on the Island.

Henry urged people to get a COVID-19 vaccine or booster shot if they’re eligible, to register five-to-11-year-olds for their vaccines as they await approval, to wear a mask in all indoor public spaces and to get the influenza vaccine.

The reproductive rate for COVID-19 — the number of people a COVID-19 positive person will infect — is just below one, which is encouraging but also precarious as respiratory-illness season arrives along with the more highly transmissible and deadly Delta variant, said Henry.

The reproductive rate was 1.06 in Island Health last week, compared with the provincial average of 0.81. “We know that Delta virus spreads way more easily and it is more transmissible and it is causing more severe illness, particularly in younger people who did not have very severe illness for most of this pandemic — that has changed now,” said Henry. The province is seeing five and 10 per cent hospitalization and ICU rates in young people diagnosed with COVID-19, which is “much higher” than before, she said.

The more serious COVID-19 cases are putting a greater strain on the health-care system, as more people end up hospitalized and needing critical care, she said. “If we’re not continuing to do the things that we know work, we can see cases inching up, outbreaks increasing and hospitalizations increasing. It is especially important for us all to remain vigilant now.”

There were 426 people with COVID in hospital in the province, including 124 in critical care on Tuesday. Of five new deaths, three were in Island Health.

Leading up to the winter holidays, Henry advised keeping indoor groups small and make sure everyone is vaccinated, said Henry.

Those wanting to gather with a greater number of family or friends should plan outdoor events, which are less risky, she said. “Go sledding or snowshoeing or hiking — we have many things we can do outdoors safety, even in the winter months.”

Henry said there have been just four confirmed cases of influenza in the province so far, but the virus is circulating in the community.

She noted that any B.C. resident over six months of age is eligible for free access to the influenza vaccine, which is mainly distributed through pharmacies, though some workplaces and schools also provide immunization programs.

Like the COVID-19 vaccine, flu shots protect both individuals and their contacts, especially those who are elderly or have suppressed immune systems, she said. “We’ve seen the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and this is compounded if we also have influenza.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said at least 485,049 flu shots have been administered so far, while just over 86 per cent of British Columbians age 12 and older are fully vaccinated with two doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

Henry cautioned that there are communities dealing with “very serious outbreaks” that might not welcome visitors now or over the holidays, noting outbreaks in a number of health authorities, including Vancouver Island.

The B.C. Centre for Disease ­Control map shows a daily case rate of just over 20 cases per 100,000 — the highest on the Island — in the local health authority area of Vancouver Island West, which includes the towns of Gold River and Tahsis.

“So check before you go,” said Henry, adding respectful travel requires being fully vaccinated, having a vaccine card ready to access discretionary events and establishments, and wearing a mask in all indoor public venues, from stores to ski hills.

Henry said B.C. will receive a limited amount of the Johnson and Johnson one-dose vaccine as early as next week that will first be offered to health-care workers off work because of an order requiring them to be vaccinated to continue working in health care.

> Online: getvaccinated.gov.bc.ca