B.C.’s recent uptick in COVD cases not unexpected, say experts

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A recent uptick in COVID-19 cases after a steep decline this summer is not unexpected as restrictions were removed, say scientific experts in pandemic modelling.

The rolling seven-day daily average hit a low of 36 cases a day on July 4 but has risen since then to 58 on July 20, figures compiled by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control show. The rolling average has not risen smoothly, dipping last week before rising again, but is well down from peak highs of more than 1,100 in April.

Experts in modelling the spread of viruses caution not to read too much into the numbers yet because when numbers are low, small fluctuations can appear more dramatic.

But the experts say a rise in cases would not be unexpected given that restrictions have been removed and the entire B.C. population is not vaccinated. Another factor, say scientists, is there is likely to have been a rise in the Delta variant, first identified in India, which spreads more rapidly than earlier variants of the virus.

Because all of these factors work together, it is tough to predict exactly what will happen in B.C., UBC epidemiologist Daniel Coombs said Wednesday.

“But an increasing number of cases is totally plausible and not unexpected,” said Coombs, who has expertise in mathematical models of pandemic growth and control.

The latest information from the B.C. Ministry of Health showed that 78 cases of COVID-19 were reported in the past 24 hours, after 76 cases were reported on Tuesday. Those are the two highest daily numbers since late June.

The Delta variant has been pinpointed as a key factor in soaring cases in the U.S. and some countries in Europe, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. The Netherlands, where less than 60 per cent of the population has received a first dose of vaccine, has reimposed some restrictions including closing night clubs.

Caroline Colij, an epidemiologist at Simon Fraser University, said she does not believe that B.C. needs to be worried it is on the same trajectory as a country such as Netherlands, where daily cases have surpassed highs in the spring, as the situation here is not the same.

For example, 80 per cent of those 12 years and older have been vaccinated in B.C., and 56 per cent have had a second dose.

Still, she said some bump in cases is not unexpected as the province opens up with not everyone vaccinated.

“Hospitalizations could rise, but hopefully not to the point where they are challenging capacity,” said Colijn, a Canada 150 research chair in mathematics for evolution, infection and public health with SFU.

She said it’s important to continue to encourage vaccinations in B.C.

Vaccination rates of first doses have slowed in B.C. In the first three weeks of July, an additional 2.6 per cent of those 12 and under have been vaccinated. In June, that number was 10.5 per cent.

UBC epidemiologist Sarah Otto said it seems clear that there has not been as big an increase in cases as would have been expected from removing COVID-19 restrictions.

She believes that’s because many British Columbians continue to practise safety measures such as wearing masks indoors in public spaces although they no longer have to.

She noted that Google mobility data shows there has not been a big increase in interactions after July 1.

“So, I think if we’re seeing an uptick, it’s not that fast,” said Otto, a UBC zoologist who specializes in mathematical modelling.

Jens von Bergmann, a partner in Vancouver-based MountainMath, which specializes in data analysis and modelling, commented on social media earlier this week that cases aren’t declining any more and the province is in what looks like a growth scenario again.

However, in an interview, von Bergmann said what is needed is better information on what role variants are playing in the rise, particularly the Delta variant.

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