B.C. reports whopping 547 COVID-19 cases in Whistler so far this year

Click to play video: 'Whistler sees explosion in COVID-19 cases'
Whistler sees explosion in COVID-19 cases
B.C.'s health minister says an action plan will be unveiled next week to reduce transmission in Whistler after the resort community recorded 547 cases of the virus between Jan. 1 and Feb. 2 but as Aaron McArthur reports, both the province and municipality are reluctant to do anything that would jeopardize the ski season – Feb 5, 2021

The resort community of Whistler has become one of B.C.’s COVID-19 hotspots.

Health officials revealed on Friday that the community had recorded 547 known cases of the virus between Jan. 1 and Feb. 2 — a figure Health Minister Adrian Dix described as “too many.”

It’s nearly double the 288 cases that Vancouver Coastal Health reported in Whistler between Jan. 1 and Jan. 26.

Read more: More people in Whistler have contracted COVID-19 in January than in all of 2020

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In just five days, from Jan. 26 to Feb. 02, the community recorded 259 cases, nearly matching the 271 cases confirmed in Whistler in all of 2020.

“The majority of the cases in Whistler continue to be identified in young people in their 20s and 30s who live, work and socialize together,” Dix said.

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Click to play video: 'Highest concern in B.C. is community spread of COVID-19 variants and confusion over travel to Whistler'
Highest concern in B.C. is community spread of COVID-19 variants and confusion over travel to Whistler

“Almost all of the recent cases are associated with transmission occurring within households and social settings, according to our contact tracing.”

Those cases translated into just two hospital stays and no deaths, but Dix said people who contracted the virus in Whistler could have carried it to other communities where it could have caused more damage.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus cases climbing in Whistler as tourists continue to arrive for ski season'
Coronavirus cases climbing in Whistler as tourists continue to arrive for ski season

In a bulletin, Vancouver Coastal Health said contact tracing had revealed “very little transmission has been linked to outdoor recreation areas such as Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.”

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Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton said much of the transmission was happening in within the community’s workforce.

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“It’s easy for the virus to move very quickly through those homes, and people have jobs in a number of places, so it started to move very quickly in the month of January,” he said.

The Whistler numbers come as ski destinations in Fernie and Big White in Kelowna grapple with their own community clusters.

Despite the high case load, Dix said the province remains reticent to impose industry-wide restrictions on ski operators.

Read more: Multiple COVID-19 cases reported at Whistler Blackcomb staff housing

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The preference is for focused enforcement on areas of concern, in cooperation with the local community, he said.

WorkSafeBC has conducted 61 recent inspections in Whistler, he said, while Vancouver Coastal Health environmental health officers had conducted “several dozen.”

In late January, Whistler/Pemberton RCMP said they had issued 15 violation tickets under the COVID Related Measures and Emergency Program Act.

Staff at the mountain have said they are following detailed protocols, including daily health screenings, but continue to see a large volume of tourists.

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Click to play video: 'The delicate issue of a travel ban and its impacts on Whistler'
The delicate issue of a travel ban and its impacts on Whistler

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said concerns in Whistler don’t preclude Lower Mainland residents from visiting to ski.

“Stay local. For Whistler, that means day trips only. Right now is not the time to go up there and party,” she said.

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“The community needs to be protected from us, and we need, if we’re going up to Whistler … not to bring the virus back to our community.”

Henry said would-be skiers should also check ahead to ensure there is actually enough room on the mountains for them.

Crompton said Whistler was working with the province on messaging for locals to communicate the “gravity of the situation,” and for the rest of the province to encourage them to stay away during holidays like spring break.

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He said in addition to beefed up inspections, the municipality was also working on expanding isolation housing for workers who are exposed to the virus.

He added that Whistler has about 14,000 jobs dependent on the ski industry, but acknowledged that shutting the hills down could be necessary if transmission could not be contained.

“This save the season effort is in hopes that we can continue to enjoy skiing, which is a safe activity, and our community can stay open, but certainly that’s not something that’s off the table,” Crompton said.

“If we as a province and a community can’t get a handle on this, that’s certainly something that is a possibility — not something we desire.”

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