As students head back inside the classroom concerns are growing over a new COVID-19 subvariant.
The new strain of Omicron, named XBB.1.5, is taking over in the United States. It now accounts for roughly 40 per cent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases in that country, double what it was just a week ago.
B.C. health officials confirmed Tuesday the subvariant is here with at least five cases detected before Christmas.
“I expect we’ll see more, it’s not increasing rapidly here but it is one of the subvariants we know can take off particularly in areas where you have lower vaccination rates,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told CBC Radio.
Scientists are still learning more about XBB but lab studies show it can evade antibodies from previous COVID infections or vaccination. The good news is that it doesn’t yet appear to cause more severe illness than other forms of Omicron.
“We’re not seeing that yet and we’ve been watching or that very carefully, that’s important. From the virus perspective it doesn’t need to cause more severe disease to survive,” Henry said.
Still, the group Protect our Province BC wants the government to take stronger action, tweeting out six New Year’s resolutions to Premier David Eby on Monday. Among the resolutions are adding HEPA filters to all B.C. classrooms, re-instituting a mask mandate and bringing back widespread PCR testing.
Increase access to Paxlovid, an effective treatment, by changing the criteria for fully vaccinated people to age 50 with no restrictions.
Age 50 is the inflection point after which hospitalizations AND deaths due to COVID increase.
— Protect Our Province BC (@Protect_BC) January 2, 2023
In response, Henry told CBC Radio that B.C. is doing PCR testing for those who need it most, that HEPA filters are only one tool in improving ventilation in schools and that it’s a “good idea” to wear a mask when needed.
“We all know when there is important times to wear masks and I think we need to go back to that,” she said.
The province has previously stated that returning to a mask mandate is unlikely.