“Many people did an excellent job very early on, but we have seen slippage,” said B.C. Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, announcing new public health orders on Nov. 19, 2020. “This is the time for everybody to pay attention to make sure that you revisit and step up your safety efforts to ensure these protocols are fully implemented.” See gov.bc.ca/covid19 for more details on the new public safety orders in effect from Nov. 20 – Dec. 7, 2020. Government of B.C. photo.

By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

Vancouver and Fraser Valley are the COVID-19 hotspots in B.C., but the virus is now spreading through the north with relative speed, through similar pathways, and straining the healthcare system, said a Northern Health official.

“Cases are growing exponentially in the north,” said Northern Health Medical Health Officer, Dr. Rakel Kling. “It’s not any one demographic, we’re seeing it in all age groups, all over the north, in large communities and small communities alike.”

Thirty per cent of the 588 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Northern Health have done so in the past three weeks. Likewise, about 56 per cent of the 23,146 total cases in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser areas combined, have been diagnosed since Oct. 30.

“Our (transmission) patterns are fairly similar,” Kling said. “Gatherings inside the house, social settings, household contacts, friends and others, in addition to other sites, like workplaces.”

The sharp increase in COVID-19 cases is testing the northern healthcare system as it is in the Fraser Valley and Vancouver regions.

“We have seen a significant rise in new cases, hospitalizations, and tragically, deaths,” said Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry said, announcing new public orders on Nov. 19. “Our hospitals are getting stretched. Our ICU capacity is getting stretched, our communities are suffering.”


New public health orders


In an effort to stem the rise of cases throughout the province, new provincial health orders took effect today requiring British Columbians to suspend socializing outside their immediate households, wear masks in all indoor public places, and refrain from non-essential travel across B.C. for two weeks, among other restrictions.

Similar public health orders had previously been in effect in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Valley regions, but were extended to the whole province following increased outbreaks in healthcare facilities and escalating strains on healthcare systems in the Interior, Northern and Vancouver Island health authorities, according to Henry.

As of Nov. 20, there were 7,122 people with active cases of COVID-19 in the province, including 95 people in the north. A further 10,002 people were being monitored by health officials across the province.

“It’s definitely been a very busy few days,” said Kling.

Despite nearly 800 additional contact tracers being hired by the Province since September (and 200 more expected to start work in the next few weeks), widespread community transmission is impeding public health’s ability to determine the source of infections.

“We’re less and less able to find out reasons why they had exposures,” Kling said.

As of Nov. 20, there were 57 outbreaks in long-term care, assisted-living and acute care facilities, including two in the north. Northern Health was also managing an outbreak at an LNG Canada site in Kitimat, along with several school outbreaks.

“Public health is able to stay on top of (cases),” Henry said. “But it has been challenging, and we’ve seen impacts on our health care system as well.”

There were 227 people in hospital in B.C. on Nov. 20, including 57 in ICU. In the north, there were 10 people in hospital and an additional eight people in ICU.

A total of 1,451 people have been in hospital because of COVID-19 in B.C., with 53 of those people residing in Northern Health.

“Our hospital is definitely filling up,” said Kling. “They’re working on making sure that there continues to be capacity at the hospital.”

As of Nov. 9, Northern Health was operating at 93 per cent capacity, with 158 regular and ‘surge’ beds available and an additional 36 ICU and critical care beds vacant, according to Ministry of Health data.

“We are holding our own,” said Henry.

Now is a great time for businesses to review their COVID-19 safety plans, with an emphasis on staff gathering places, Kling said.

Businesses and health care settings often focus on “forward-facing” aspects of service, ensuring customers and patients (students, in the schools) aren’t exposed to the virus, but may let their guard down with co-workers, said Henry.

“We sometimes forget that it‘s the person we’re eating lunch with that could be transmitting it to us,” Henry said.


Good news for kids


Despite having exposure events in the north, schools have not been the site of transmission for children, said Kling.

“There is very little risk for transmission in school for children,” said Kling. “The risk has been more for teacher-to-teacher.”

Children usually come in contact with the virus in the community, their household, or from close contacts, Kling said.

Proof, she said, that COVID safety plans in schools are working.

“Being in school is actually the safer place for kids right now,” said Kling.

For more information on the latest public health orders: gov.bc.ca/covid19

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]