2022 was the deadliest year of the COVID-19 pandemic in B.C. What's next?

B.C. recorded more deaths from COVID-19 in 2022 than any of the preceding two years. It's leading to scientists asking for a proper reckoning of the virus's harms. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
B.C. recorded more deaths from COVID-19 in 2022 than any of the preceding two years. It's leading to scientists asking for a proper reckoning of the virus's harms. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

As the year wraps up — one where the province dropped public health restrictions, including mandatory masking — 2022 will go down as the deadliest of the COVID-19 pandemic so far in British Columbia.

This year, 2,383 deaths from the virus were recorded, compared to 1,522 last year.

And despite high levels of vaccination, there has not yet been a significant reduction of COVID-19 infections, which continue to kill hundreds of Canadians weekly.

It's leading to some scientists calling for a proper reckoning of the rapidly-circulating virus's harms, and issuing reminders about the benefits of masking and self-isolating when sick.

Number of COVID-19 deaths per year in British Columbia

 

"This was the year that most of us got COVID," said Dr. Caroline Colijn, a Canada 150 research chair at Simon Fraser University.

"That, plus vaccination, does change the situation … We haven't kept trying to prevent transmission. Per infection, those risks are much lower. But then, of course, the total burden can still be high."

Deaths per day due to COVID-19 in B.C., daily total and rolling average

 

The year kicked off with the rapidly-circulating Omicron variant of the virus. One study, co-authored by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, suggested most of the B.C. population had developed antibodies against COVID-19 by August through infection and vaccination.

Since then, there have been spikes and dips in the number of cases in B.C., driven by various Omicron subvariants.

The number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in 2022 has been higher than previous waves of the pandemic for sustained periods, with the highest death toll among people older than 70.

Current hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in B.C.

 

End of briefings, daily data

Scientists have been warning for months that B.C.'s pandemic data reporting conceals the virus's true impact, especially as the province only counts PCR tests, which are accessible only to vulnerable people.

In April, B.C. ended its daily briefings on the virus, switching to a weekly reporting model instead.

An independent modelling group, of which Colijn is a member, has said B.C. undercounts all major COVID-19 metrics.

Weekly hospitalization/ICU entries in B.C. due to COVID-19

 

Colijn said the end of daily briefings led to a change in people's behaviours and perceptions of the COVID-19 threat — a finding corroborated by an independent review of B.C.'s public health response.

"It means that the scientific community and the media community don't have access to what the government is thinking and seeing in the data, and what the messages are," she said.

Mike McArthur/CBC
Mike McArthur/CBC

The SFU professor also said there should be a conversation about what data the public is entitled to when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, in addition to metrics like hospitalizations and deaths.

"What information do people need to manage their risk? Not just of COVID or of other respiratory viruses, but of the post-COVID impacts that can happen?" she said.

"Increased risks of long COVID, cardiovascular impact, impact on the brain, impact on the lungs. I think these are things that should be part of the public conversation."

Rolling average, COVID-19 wastewater concentration in Metro Vancouver treatment plants

 

What could come in 2023

Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, says there might be an imposition of selective public health measures in 2023 if influenza infections continue to spike.

He says he hopes people continue to mask and self-isolate when required.

"My biggest fear is that people will not take any of this seriously," he said. "The COVID fatigue, the isolation fatigue, the vaccine fatigue, even mask fatigue is going to lead to people wanting this to be gone.

"I think that would be our biggest mistake."

Conway says he doesn't see society-wide lockdowns happening in 2023 due to the economic impact, but that there is little economic ramification with the tools available to British Columbians right now — masks and vaccines in particular.

Colijn says it can't be assumed that the virus will simply get milder as it continues to evolve in 2023, adding that hundreds of new infections will create potential for new variants.

"What we're seeing right now in China carries that potential," she said.

"Until now, there hasn't been much infection in China and now the virus has the opportunity to possibly move through a new population of people."

Both Conway and Colijn say COVID-19 will remain for the foreseeable future, until sterilizing vaccines or other new treatments are widely used.

"What's the long-term impact of living in a way in which we all get COVID once or twice a year on average? How is that distributed?" asked Colijn.

"It's probably going to disproportionately burden certain groups who are more likely to … work or live in crowded conditions."