Coronavirus variants causing growing alarm in B.C. as cases surge, hospitalizations rise

British Columbia

Doctors say that during the first wave of the pandemic, they were seeing mainly elderly individuals getting sick. But now they're seeing younger patients aged 20 to 50 infected with COVID-19 and needing critical care.

Dr. Gerald Da Roza, head of medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., says the facility is seeing a growing number of COVID-19 cases attributed to coronavirus variants of concern.(Briar Stewart/CBC News)

Experts are growing increasingly concerned about the spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants in B.C. and a consequent spike in serious COVID-19 cases that they fear could overwhelm hospitals in the province.

Doctors say they're seeing younger patients with the disease — aged 20 to 50 — requiring critical care, in contrast with predominantly elderly people who got badly sick during the first year of the pandemic.

"We do know that a lot of that is the variant[s], and it does seem like it is a more transmissible strain and it also seems that people do get sicker with some of these variants," said Dr. Gerald Da Roza, head of medicine at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C.

Da Roza says intake at the intensive care unit (ICU) has increased in the past few weeks at the hospital, where he reported that patients have spilled over into other departments.

"Some people say this is the busiest we've been in 15 years," he said.

The variants of concern in B.C. are B117, first detected in the U.K., and P1, associated with Brazil. Cases of both have so far been concentrated in the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health authority regions, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said Monday.

He said the number of cases of the P1 variant close to doubled over the Easter weekend.

"The most transmissive variants of COVID-19 are ultimately going to take over," the minister said.

Dix said 60 of the current 320 coronavirus cases in B.C. hospitals are related to variants of concern. He also confirmed there are pressures on ICUs, especially at Royal Columbian and Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver.

'Worrisome' spread of P1

B.C. is now being identified by epidemiologists across the world as a notable hotspot for the P1 variant that has spread unchecked through Brazil, where COVID-19 has killed more than 300,000 people.

Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, a Washington, D.C.-based epidemiologist and health economist, says the accelerating community spread of mutations in B.C. is "worrisome."

He said that the P1 variant is more than twice as transmissible as the original coronavirus and initial data suggests it causes higher mortality rates and affects younger people more than the initial strand.

Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, raised the alarm a few weeks ago when he compared B.C. to Florida, where variants are also growing in number.

Health Canada reported 379 cases involving variants of concern in B.C. on April 1, up from 84 on March 22. As of Monday, Dix said there are now a total of 588 of the two primary variants in the province: 373 of B117 and 215 of P1.

Staff at Royal Columbian Hospital say the hospital is the busiest it's been in 15 years.(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Canucks off ice

The fact that many Vancouver Canucks players have been affected — despite strict NHL safety protocols, testing and the use of personal protective equipment — should serve as an alarm bell, Feigl-Ding said.

"I think this has woken people up because people think … young people are healthy, especially if you're an athlete. You train well, you shouldn't have any problems," he said.

As of Monday evening, a total of 17 Canucks players — most of the team's active roster — were officially being kept off the ice under the league's COVID protocols, though that does not necessarily mean all 17 have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Several sources say an unnamed player from the team's reserve "taxi squad" is quarantining and three members of the coaching staff have tested positive.

While health officials and the NHL have refused to confirm that the team outbreak involves one of the coronavirus variants, hockey insiders at media sources including The Sports Network and The Province have said it is suspected.

One of the players affected, Jayce Hawryluk, contracted COVID-19 last year.

Let this sink in—wealthy sports franchise, NHL <a href="https://twitter.com/Canucks?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Canucks</a>:<br><br>—Had &gt;50% of its team <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#COVID19</a> sickened <br><br>—Many decimated “very ill”<br><br>—Despite strict workplace protocols<br><br>—Despite big PPE budget<br><br>—Despite daily testing<br><br>➡️The <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/P1?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#P1</a> variant is just that badass.🧵<a href="https://t.co/Ohve0bQqft">https://t.co/Ohve0bQqft</a> <a href="https://t.co/LzFkiRRYKp">pic.twitter.com/LzFkiRRYKp</a>

&mdash;@DrEricDing

Da Roza said it's now a race to get people vaccinated to offset the increased infections he's seeing in younger British Columbians.

B.C. is rolling out its vaccine largely based on age, starting with the oldest. As of Tuesday, all residents born in 1950 or earlier are now eligible for their first shot.

Da Roza urges people to be vigilant so that the variants don't draw out the pandemic any longer.

"Hang in there for a few more months, and be smart about things," he advised.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend

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