Wide-ranging restrictions are returning to the Central Okanagan as the area’s COVID-19 outbreak has tripled to 1,200 cases since it was declared last week, public health officials said today.
The local health area has been the epicentre of the province’s fourth wave, accounting for nearly half of all cases in B.C. despite having less than four per cent of the province’s population.
Bars and nightclubs will close, high intensity indoor fitness is suspended and officials are strongly advising against non-essential travel to the region, which includes Kelowna and West Kelowna. Indoor and outdoor dining is limited to six people per table, but they may be from different households.
Personal gatherings are limited to five people or one other household, and indoor and outdoor events are limited to 50 people. Gatherings at vacation rentals may have no more than five people not staying at the property.
The restrictions effectively return the local health area to Step 2 of the province’s reopening plan, which ended in June.
They are in addition to the mask mandate reinstated when the outbreak was declared last week.
But public health officials stopped short of reinstating any provincewide measures, despite evidence of rapid and sustained case growth in all health authorities that has experts calling for the mask mandate to return.
“This is not where we wanted to be, obviously, right now,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said today. “But we know what works and we know that this is a local outbreak.”
“These steps, we believe, will allow us to contain the outbreak in the area.”
B.C. reported 464 new cases today, 275 of which were in Interior Health. There are currently 52 people hospitalized and 24 in intensive care.
The province’s own guidance for reopening required low and stable daily case counts and hospitalizations to move to steps 3 and 4.
On Tuesday, Henry said B.C. was “absolutely on track” to enter Step 4, which will allow large-scale events like concerts, on Sept. 7.
But when asked by The Tyee today whether 400 new daily cases and rising counts met her definition of “low and stable,” Henry said the province had met other thresholds for reopening and would closely monitor changes in the situation.
“We’re seeing local outbreaks, which is what we expected,” said Henry. “Right now we’re taking the measures we need to address the situation we’re in today.”
Current local case rates far surpass the small rise in cases the province’s own modelling said B.C. could expect as it reopened.
And while Henry said B.C. is seeing a decoupling of daily cases and hospitalization levels, data from the surging hospitalizations in the Delta-ravaged United states and European Union suggest B.C. could see hospitalizations rise significantly as soon as next week.
Current growth of the Delta variant, which accounts for about 80 per cent of cases, could see as many as 1,000 cases a day in the coming weeks, and hospitalization levels nearing 400 patients in September, according to an interim modelling report from the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group released today.
“The modelling we have is based on trends from elsewhere and says we will likely see hospitalizations rising,” said group member Dr. Sarah Otto in a Thursday interview.
Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix urged British Columbians to get vaccinated to reduce their chances of infection, transmission and serious illness from the virus.
“Thanks to vaccines we have the tools now to stop outbreaks in their tracks,” said Henry.
But with first-dose vaccinations at just 81.8 per cent of eligible British Columbians and little increase for the last several weeks, the modelling suggests B.C. is still far from achieving community immunity.
Without significantly more immunizations or broader provincewide public health measures, the Okanagan’s local restrictions signal what could return soon to other parts of B.C.
“We are not moving the dial fast enough with our immunizations,” said Interior Health chief medical officer of health Dr. Sue Pollock.