The week B.C. slipped: With COVID-19 cases on the rise, officials warn against pandemic fatigue

If you live in B.C. and have been watching the province’s COVID-19 case numbers climb with growing unease this week, you’re not alone. 

B.C. has so far been heralded as a COVID-19 success story, having flattened its curve relatively early and avoided the worst-case scenario that would have seen intensive care units overwhelmed.

But cases have been steadily ticking upwards since the province entered Phase 3 of its gradual reopening — a scenario Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry warned would happen as people expanded their social bubbles.

B.C. health officials aren’t in crisis mode just yet — saying because the surge isn’t equally distributed across the province, and is largely contained to a particular demographic (younger people), it’s not time to hit the panic button.

But for the first time since the height of the pandemic, health officials spent much of the week warning the public to pull back on social interactions, and “recommit” to physical distancing. And in a first since the province began to reopen, new public health orders were brought in to curb the spread of the virus, with Henry calling this week in B.C. “a turning point.”

Signs at the entrance to the Fountainhead Pub provide guidelines to patrons. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

1,000 people isolating after B.C.’s largest public outbreak

On Friday afternoon the province announced a new community outbreak, this time on Haida Gwaii, with 13 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date. 

And nearly 1,000 British Columbians are currently in self-isolation, with up to 86 cases now linked to public gatherings and parties in the Kelowna area.

Before the Kelowna outbreak, B.C. had avoided this kind of large, potentially super-spreading event. Previous outbreaks, including one in a neo-natal unit in Vancouver this week, were confined to workplaces, detention centres, health-care settings or long-term care homes. 

Henry said the Kelowna outbreak is a prime example of why people need to keep groups small — to make contact tracing effective. In some cases related to the Kelowna gatherings, people had been in contact with people they did not know, making contact tracing impossible.

As a result of the outbreak, the province has announced new restrictions limiting the number of people allowed on rental properties and boats, including houseboats.

Henry also announced new measures for restaurants, bars and nightclubs. All patrons will be required to be seated, alcohol self-service will not be available (which means no ordering from the bar), and dance floors will be closed. Henry also reiterated that people should not be moving tables together or attempting to exceed the limit on six people at gatherings, after a number of restaurants reported that people were trying to bend the rules. 

‘You’re better than that’

In the age of physical distancing and camera phones, no bending of the rules goes unposted.

It was a lesson learned this week by revellers at a Third Beach drum circle in Vancouver, and by Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart himself.

On Tuesday night, images of hundreds of people drumming and dancing on the beach spread quickly on social media, drawing widespread condemnation.

Henry addressed the images, saying that while the likelihood of spread is lower outdoors, the risk is not zero. She said people should enjoy B.C.’s beaches, but keep groups small and distanced from others.

Meanwhile, Stewart was photographed last week sitting at a West End restaurant patio table with seven other people, violating a public health order that allows no more than six people to sit together at a restaurant table. He later explained he and his wife were joined by two other couples from his immediate family for a meal outside. He said the group grew when more family members arrived, noting “it’s easy to make a mistake.”

When pressed about public faux pas in COVID-19 briefings, Dix and Henry repeatedly said the vast majority of British Columbians appear to be following public health guidelines, and that instances where they are being violated tend to garner significant attention because they happen in public.

But commenting on a number of events this week, Premier John Horgan was less forgiving in his tone, saying “I have to say to British Columbians: Come on. You’re better than that.” 

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam called on Canadians to resist giving in to pandemic fatigue as novel coronavirus cases among young people surge. Across Canada, cases in people under the age of 39 account for 60 per cent of new cases reported this week, with over a third ending up in hospital.

Watch | Premier says an increase in caseload was expected in Phase 3, but “that doesn’t mean you can be reckless”:

John Horgan says the province doesn’t believe in penalizing people, but he’s encouraging British Columbians to behave better. 1:49

New guidelines for safe sex

This week the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) listed new guidelines for safe sex during the pandemic. The BCCDC said masturbation is the most risk-free choice — “you are your safest partner” — and that your next-safest sex partner is someone in your household, or someone who has close contact with you and nobody else. 

But officials also acknowledged not everyone has sex exclusively with a single, live-in partner, and provided practical guidance for people hoping to be safely intimate.

People who are dating or having casual sex should avoid kissing and wear a mask, as “heavy breathing during sex can create more droplets that may transmit COVID-19.”

The centre recommended choosing sexual positions that limit face-to-face contact. It said condoms, lubricant and dental dams should be used to reduce contact with saliva, semen and feces during sex. (The virus has been found in semen and feces, but it is not yet clear if the coronavirus can be sexually transmitted.)

“Use barriers, like walls (e.g., glory holes), that allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact,” the guidelines state.

B.C. matching $1 billion

A week after projecting a $12.5 billion deficit, the B.C. government said it is matching $1 billion in federal government money to address the impacts of COVID-19 and help restart the economy.

Premier John Horgan said in a news release the funding will secure some of B.C.’s share of the federal government’s $19-billion “Safe Restart” plan for the country. It says the money will support local governments and transit operators that have revenue shortfalls created by the pandemic.

Finance Minister Carole James says the federal government’s restart program also includes funds to support health care, child care, vulnerable populations and a sick leave program.

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