Mandatory masks in indoor spaces and a slew of public health measures will be reinstated in the Central Okanagan as public health officials today declared a COVID-19 outbreak over rising cases in the health area.
There have been about 240 cases of COVID-19 in the last week, representing more than half of new cases in the province. The area has less than four per cent of B.C.’s population.
“We need to focus additional measures to reduce transmission,” said Interior Health chief medical health officer Dr. Sue Pollock. “It’s time to slow down and it’s time to step back to protect our community.”
The announcement brings other targeted regional restrictions, including an advisory against non-essential travel into or out of the region for individuals who are not fully vaccinated. The area includes Kelowna, West Kelowna, Peachland and Lake Country.
The travel advisory does not apply to families with children under 12 who can’t yet be vaccinated, Pollock and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
Workplace enforcement will also be stepped up to ensure businesses are following outbreak prevention protocols. If three or more cases are linked to a workplace, WorkSafeBC and public health can make the decision to close the business for 10 or more days.
And residents will be eligible for their second vaccine doses just four weeks after their first doses in a bid to speed up vaccinations in the region that is lagging behind the rest of the province. The current interval elsewhere is between six and seven weeks.
“Vaccination works,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix. “Now’s our time to make sure we’re getting that message out to people, including young people across the province.”
As of today, 80.8 per cent of people in the province over 12 have received at least one shot, and 63.2 per cent have both doses.
In the Central Okanagan, just 74.2 per cent of people have had a single dose and 60 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Across Interior Health, 26 per cent of the population is unvaccinated, compared with 14 per cent in Vancouver Coastal. The Northern Health region has a higher vulnerability, with 32.5 per cent of people unvaccinated.
The new measures, which do not yet have an expiration date, represent what public health officials hinted could take place in other parts of B.C. where the virus continues to spread, particularly among unvaccinated people.
Most of the cases are among young people aged 20 to 40 who have had limited vaccine access but are more active in their communities and so more likely to transmit the virus.
“Where we’re seeing transmission is in pockets of people who are un-immunized or under-immunized,” Henry said.
On Tuesday, the province rolled out its Vax for BC campaign to target the 900,000 eligible British Columbians who are not yet vaccinated.
The campaign will see more vaccines directed to pop-up, mobile and community-based clinics to make vaccination convenient.
In the North and Interior, where financial and geographic barriers can make it more difficult to book and get to a vaccine appointment, public health officials will begin travelling to smaller communities to vaccinate residents close to home.
When asked by The Tyee whether today’s measures indicated the provincewide mask mandate, lifted on July 1, had been removed too early, Henry said no. “We know that wearing masks is important when we have widespread lack of immunity,” she said.
“We are going to see clusters and flare-ups in communities that aren’t yet protected,” Henry said, but vaccines mean provincewide restrictions aren’t needed to quell this outbreak. Less than five per cent of new cases in the last month involve people who have received two doses of vaccine.
“The virus is not going to take off as much,” she said.