B.C. identifies case of infectious coronavirus variant first seen in South Africa

B.C.’s provincial health officer has confirmed the first case of a coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa, along with four total cases of the variant linked to the U.K.

Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday that health officials are investigating how the person in B.C. contracted the variant first seen in South Africa, as the person has not travelled or is linked to any traveller. 

“It is, of course, concerning we don’t know where this arose,” Henry said, noting the variant does not appear to have spread in the community. 

As for the variant that surfaced in the U.K., three of the cases in B.C. are tied to one traveller, while the fourth case is linked to a second traveller, Henry said.

“We don’t believe that this has spread at all from these four cases.”

The variant that was first reported in South Africa is more infectious than the original COVID-19 virus and has rapidly become dominant in that country’s coastal areas.

The U.K. strain also spreads more easily and has been blamed in that country for record-high cases and surging hospitalizations.

Neither variant is believed to be more deadly, and scientists say there’s no evidence vaccines won’t protect against them.

Increase in cases in Interior Health

Henry also announced that seven more people have died of COVID-19 in B.C., as the province recorded 536 new cases.

Active cases in the province continue to fall, with the tally now at 4,624.

Notably, Interior Health eclipsed Vancouver Coastal Health Thursday as the region with the second-highest number of new cases. Henry said holiday gatherings are a big reason for the surge in cases in B.C.’s Interior.

“It’s not focused in one area,” she said.

“What we’re seeing is more local, where people had come together in small groups and decided they could stretch those rules. We’re seeing transmission in small clusters that is moving through communities.” 

Fraser Health remains the hardest-hit region, although its total has plummeted in recent weeks. 

A total of 362 people are in hospital, 74 of whom are in intensive care. Nearly 70,000 people have received a vaccine dose. 

The death toll stands at 1,038. A total of 52,605 people have recovered from the virus.

‘Our borders are very different’

With COVID-19 case numbers soaring in other parts of Canada, the B.C. government is getting legal advice to determine whether an inter-provincial travel ban is a valid option.

Both Alberta and Saskatchewan have COVID case counts numbering over 300 cases per 100,000 population, whereas B.C. is around 126 cases per 100,000.

Henry said she would not issue a public health order against inter-provincial travel, such as the travel ban in place in the Atlantic provinces. 

“It’s hard to see how that is feasible in British Columbia, for many reasons,” she said.

“Our borders are very different. We have many ways that people can cross, particularly from Alberta.”

Henry noted there are many services and workplaces that involve people travelling between provinces.

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