Provincial health officials say they’re hoping to flatten a sharp spike in daily new COVID-19 cases in B.C.’s Central Okanagan region.
For the past week, the Interior Health region has seen a dramatic rise in case counts, which prompted B.C.’s top health officials to hold a press conference on Wednesday.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Interior Health interim chief medical health officer Dr. Sue Pollock declared an outbreak for the Central Okanagan.
This includes Kelowna, West Kelowna, Westbank First Nation, Peachland, Lake Country and local electoral areas.
“The increase has spread out,” Henry said, adding the cases are seen mostly in young people.
“Over 50 per cent of the cases, as the minister pointed out, have been in this area.”
Officials noted there have been 240 cases in the region during the past week, and that the vast majority involve those who haven’t been immunized or only partially immunized.
Henry said the province no longer needs to take broad sector societal measures, but some measures are needed.
The Central Okanagan restrictions include:
- A regional order instituting a mask mandate for indoor public spaces to address the COVID-19 outbreak.
- The order applies to individuals older than 12 years of age.
- Organize events outdoors rather than indoors, if possible.
- Restaurants are back to Step 3, which means the maximum capacity of indoor venues has now been reduced.
- Bars, restaurants and nightclubs must have COVID-19 safety plans in place. Liquor service can remain at normal hours but people should not be socializing between tables.
- Reducing the second-dose interval to four weeks, to get people vaccinated quicker.
- Discouraging non-essential travel to the region by people who are not yet fully vaccinated.
- Expanded availability of asymptomatic testing.
The province said the measures will remain in place for at least 14 days and until the region experiences lower cases and higher vaccination rates.
“More than 95 per cent of recent cases in the Central Okanagan are among people who are not fully immunized against COVID-19,” the province said in a press release.
“This is an important reminder that immunization is our most effective prevention against COVID-19.”
“We are seeing this mostly in young people and we know they have had less access to the vaccine. We are seeing transmission in the Delta variant which we know is more transmissible,” said Henry.
“We still need to take measures in those areas where we are seeing higher levels of transmission. Where we are seeing transmission is in pockets of people who are not immunized or under-immunized.”
Henry also said, “taking these additional measures will help us get control as quickly as possible.”
She also called it a “localized approach,” adding they hope to “see a rapid decrease in cases and get our immunization numbers up.”
Dix added they are seeing “significant transmission in the Central Okanagan health area at multiple sites. We are taking some action to deal with that.”
He continued, saying “we need to increase immunization levels everywhere in B.C.”
Interior Health is also encouraging people to wear masks outdoors if they’re unable to distance and if they’re unimmunized.
“Masks can also be very effective against the very poor air quality that we’re experiencing right now (because of wildfire smoke),” said Pollock.
Masks will be optional for children less than 12 years old who are attending camps or other similar settings.
Interior Health also said it will be reinforcing the importance of physical distancing, staying home when sick and seeking testing if symptomatic.
Pollock also said with a number of businesses in the area have closed because of positive COVID-19 tests, IH will be increasing enforcement of the province’s restart plan “through additional outbreak control measures.”
Pollock continued saying “we will be following up with businesses that have three or more COVID cases linked to their establishment. And, if necessary, we will be ordering them to close.”
However, Pollock also said, “there will be discretion for some of these businesses to continue to operate if staff are immunized, and we will be working with them on a case by case basis.”
On Tuesday, Henry alluded to the possibility of putting in regional restrictions to manage the rising cases in the Kelowna area and the entire Interior Health region.
“I don’t see us having to go back to the same across-the-board restrictions that we had in place even a few months ago, in March and April and May,” Henry told Global News. “But I do see that it’ll be individual level, local things will have to happen.”
As of Tuesday, there were 412 active COVID-19 cases in Interior Health, more than double the 196 in Fraser Health, which has the second-highest number of active cases in the province.Officials reported another 150 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. Nearly two-thirds of those cases were in the Interior Health region, which reported 95 infections.
The surge in cases in B.C.’s Interior is being driven by young people who are unvaccinated. The majority of the new cases are linked to those in their 20s and 30s.
The positivity rate has soared in Interior Health, up to 6.8 per cent from 2.7 per cent a week ago.
The outbreaks are being driven by the Delta variant and are connected to indoor, social gatherings.
— With files from Jon Azpiri
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