COVID-19 in B.C.: New case count jumps to 800; longterm care visits and religious service amendments; and more

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      Today brought some long-awaited good news about pandemic restrictions, but also some troubling news about the current state of COVID-19 in B.C.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix held a news conference to announce some health measure amendments.

      However, the update on cases brought some concerning indications that the virus is increasing its spread in the province, as the new case count shot to a new high in recent weeks and numbers in all other categories continued to climb.

      In today's joint statement, Henry and Dix said: "We have also seen a notable spike in the number of new cases, especially amongst those 19 to 39 years of age. This tells us some people are taking on more risk for themselves and their loved ones than what is safe right now."

      Meanwhile, B.C. announced today that it is increasing fines for COVID-19 violations by individuals attending or promoting illegal gatherings from $230 to $575.

      Longterm care visits

      When the pandemic hit B.C., those living and working in longterm and assisted-living facilities were among the earliest cases, and the first death in Canada was a longterm care facility resident in North Vancouver.

      As Dix pointed out, it was on St. Patrick’s Day (March 14) in 2020, when Henry declared a public health emergency in B.C., that visits to longterm care facilities became limited to essential visitors. Dix explained that those restrictions led not only to a “long, cold lonely winter, [but] it was a long thaw and a lonely thaw and a lonely summer” for residents.

      Once B.C.’s immunization plan launched, residents and staff in these facilities were among the first to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in B.C.

      “We are now at a place where we know that most of our residents are protected,” Henry said.

      Consequently, visitation restrictions for residents in these facilities are now being adjusted.

      As of April 1, residents in longterm care and assisted-living facilities will be allowed to meet with visitors for social reasons.

      Despite these changes, Henry also pointed out that health precautions need to remain in place as there remains risk of transmission and not all visitors have been vaccinated.

      Henry pointed out that outbreaks at longterm care facilities have decreased, with only three active such outbreaks at the moment.

      At the same time, she acknowledged that there may be more to come but are prepared to manage them.

      “The reality is that it is likely that we are going to have more outbreaks in care homes now that we are allowing more people to come into those care homes,” she said. “But we are at a point where the benefits of having those social connections and interactions outweigh the risks, and we know that we can manage those risks with the vast majority of staff and residents now being protected with immunization.”

      Changes will include:

      • instead of one single designated visitor, up to two visitors plus one child will be permitted to visit at any one time;
      • visitors can meet in residents’ rooms without staff present;
      • physical touch will be allowed between visitors and residents, as long as health measures (masks, proper hand hygiene, and more) are used;
      • must allow for a minimum of 60 minutes.

      During any outbreaks at facilities, social visits will be suspended.

      Visits will require advanced booking, health screening of visitors, use of medical masks, and frequent hand hygiene.

      Within facilities, there are also additional changes:

      • physical distancing requirements between residents are being lifted;
      • communal dining and small group activities can resume;
      • residents can go on outings without a need for isolation after returning;
      • admissions into facilities won’t require 14-day isolation periods, and immunizations will be provided if needed.

      She said that these guidelines are subject to potential adjustments, and will consider expanding them by June 30.

      Religious services

      Henry also announced temporary amendments for faith services.

      Currently, outdoor gathering and events for religious and faith services can be held outside.

      With several religious holidays approaching—including Easter, Passover, Ramadan, and Vaisakhi—Henry announced that indoor religious services will be permitted from Sunday (March 28) to May 13.

      The maximum capacity is 50 people, or 10 percent of the worship space capacity (whichever is less).

      Worship service organizers and attendees must meet several safety requirements as well. Full details are available at the B.C. provincial health officer website.

      “This represents a first step in the gradual reopening of indoor faith and spiritual group gatherings in British Columbia,” she said.

      She said that she hopes that this trial period will be able to be extended.

      Henry acknowledged that this is taking place amid increasing case numbers and that if necessary, B.C. public health will revisit these measures and make any necessary adjustments.

      B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry
      Province of British Columbia

      B.C. update: March 25

      Over this past week, the new case count has remained above 600 cases per day, rising to 716 new cases yesterday.

      Today, Henry and Dix announced in a joint statement that there are 800 new cases (including six epi-linked cases).

      By region, that includes:

      • 381 new cases in Fraser Health (48 percent);
      • 264 in Vancouver Coastal Health (33 percent);
      • 58 in Northern Health (seven percent);
      • 50 in Interior Health (six percent);
      • 45 in Island Health (six percent);
      • two people from outside Canada (less than one percent).

      Active cases have increased once again. Currently, there are 5,856 active cases, which is 283 more cases since yesterday.

      Since yesterday, three people have been admitted to hospitals, increasing the current number of hospitalized cases to 306 patients, with 79 of them in intensive care units (a decrease of six people since yesterday).

      The number of monitored people also continues to grow. Public health is monitoring 9,964 people, which is 268 more people since yesterday, for exposures to identified cases.

      Sadly, there are five new COVID-19-related deaths, which brings the cumulative total fatalities to 1,446 people who have died.

      A cumulative total of 87,351 people (92 percent) have now recovered, which includes 494 recoveries since yesterday.

      During the pandemic, B.C. has confirmed a cumulative total of 94,769 cases.

      Variants and vaccinations

      Today, Henry and Dix announced there are 191 new COVID-19 variant cases in B.C., which increased the cumulative total of 1,772 cases.

      Of these cases, 215 are currently active.

      The total includes:

      • 1,549 cases of the B117 (U.K.) variant (152 new cases);
      • 176 cases of the P1 (Brazil) variant (36 new cases);
      • 47 cases of the B1351 (South Africa) variant (three new cases).

      As of today, 610,671 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca-SII vaccines have been administered in B.C., and 87,212 of these have been second doses.

      Outbreaks and exposures

      Henry and Dix stated that there is one new outbreak at Chilliwack General Hospital, where an outbreak had recently been declared over on March 21.

      There aren’t any new community outbreaks.

      Fraser Health listed a public exposure at the Derby Bar and Grill (17637 1st Avenue) in Surrey from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from March 19 to 21.

      Loblaw added four stores to its list of locations with staff members who tested positive.

      Three stores were Real Canadian Superstore locations:

      • one employee who last worked on March 12 at 2332 160th Street in Surrey;
      • two employees who last worked on March 15 and 19 at 2155 Ferry Avenue in Prince George;
      • one employee who last worked on March 17 at 19800 Lougheed Highway in Pitt Meadows.

      In addition, an employee who tested positive last worked on March 16 at the Shoppers Drug Mart located at 1151 10th Avenue Southwest in Salmon Arm.

      Sobeys stated that a staff member who tested positive last worked on March 17 at the Thrifty Foods (171 Brew Street) in Port Moody.

      The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) added the following nine flights to its lists of public exposures:

      • March 13: Air Canada 26, Seoul to Vancouver;
      • March 13: Air Canada/Jazz 8414, Vancouver to Kelowna;
      • March 14: WestJet 711, Toronto to Vancouver;
      • March 18: Air Canada/Jazz 8413, Kelowna to Vancouver;
      • March 18: Air Canada/Jazz 8550, Vancouver to Regina;
      • March 18: Seair Airplanes 352, Vancouver to Nanaimo;
      • March 18: WestJet 3375, Calgary to Kelowna;
      • March 19: Air Canada 314, Vancouver to Montreal;
      • March 23: Air Canada 116, Vancouver to Toronto.

      Affected row information is available at the BCCDC website.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.