Fernie-area health officials have offered up some sobering assessments of the current situation in the Elk Valley and the number of COVID-19 cases in the community, with the Elk Valley Hospital’s top doctor, Dr Ron Clark, saying Fernie could be the next Big White or Revelstoke.
“We are … very close to being in the same sort of news media attention spotlight as places like Big White and Revelstoke have been several months previously,” said Clark.
”I am very concerned our numbers will start to reach those proportions.”
The COVID-19 cluster at Big White has so far risen to 203 known cases as of Jan. 19 according to Interior Health.
In response to swirling online discussion on the number of cases in Fernie, the Fernie Chamber of Commerce had set up an online discussion on Monday, Jan. 18 with local doctors and Interior Health Officials to talk about the situation in the valley.
“I believe its safe to say we are now seeing some positive cases in Fernie,” said Brad Parsell, who is executive director with the chamber.
“It certainly feels like we’re at a crossroads with our local situation … just anecdotally from what I am hearing,” he said, explaining that businesses were already suffering due to travel advisories and bans on gatherings, with rumour and discussion on COVID-19 cases compounding a tough situation for the local economy.
Clark didn’t hold back in his assessment of numbers, saying that there was no doubt that the Elk Valley was firmly in the grip of the pandemic as of the new year.
“To the question of whether we have COVID in the Elk Valley – yes, we do. We really do,” he said, explaining that in months past, one in a thousand tests could return positive locally, but as of Jan. 18, the numbers were now one in five.
“Over twenty per cent of the tests we’re doing now are returning as positive, and its across quite a wide swathe of our population – this is obviously worrisome.”
Clark said that given how well the community had done in controlling spread of COVID-19 so far, it was even more important to revisit all the measures and recommendations made.
Clark said that a twenty per cent positivity rate was “horrible”.
“It’s as bad as anywhere else in the world right now. It clearly shows that this is absolutely widespread in our community and we could potentially have many many positive cases – hundreds even, maybe more. We’re one step away from being on the evening news.”
Between 20 and 50 tests are done daily at the Sparwood Health Centre, where tests are carried out in the Elk Valley.
The most recent BCCDC data shows that there were three new cases identified as residing in the Fernie local health area (which covers all the Elk Valley and South Country) between Jan. 3 and Jan. 9. Local data after then has not been revealed yet, but between Jan. 8 and Jan 14 there were 24 cases in the wider East Kootenay region.
For all of 2020, there were 59 confirmed cases in the Elk Valley. Only positive cases of residents that live in the area are counted. Positive cases of visitors are counted in their home health region.
Interior Health confirmed they were on the case.
“We know there has been some activity, so we do have people working on that to get to the bottom of it, to see exactly what is going on,” said Interior Health Chief Medical Health Officer, Albert de Villiers.
IH explained if something isn’t defined as a cluster or an outbreak, IH will not include it in their daily report.
But de Villiers confirmed there has been a spike in COVID-19 ‘activity’.
During the online chat on Monday, Parsell said that in the business community and broadly there was some confusion about close contacts, contact tracing and when people need to isolate.
Dr Sue Pollock, who works as one of the seven medical health officers with Interior Health, and who has been involved with case tracking in the Elk Valley, explained the processes through which positive cases are contacted, and close contacts are identified and contacted themselves. All positive cases are contacted by health authorities.
“We ask who they’ve been around,” she said, explaining that living and working arrangements are a major point of investigation. People in the same households as a confirmed positive case are regarded as close contacts, while people who share workplaces are not always close contacts.
Pollock explained that solid COVID-safety requirements, such as plexiglass, hand washing, distancing, work-spaces and the nature of work (among other things) can keep work colleagues from being classed as close contacts.
Pollock said that close contacts of someone that tests positive are not informed of who tested positive for confidentiality reasons, and are asked to self-isolate for 14 days from the last point of contact with that case.
“During that time, if they do develop symptoms, we do ask them to go in to test.”
Pollock said that someone identified as a contact (but not a close contact), is not asked to self-isolate, but self-monitor. If they develop any symptoms, they are asked to get a test and then self-isolate until they get a test result back.
Confidentially also prevents health authorities from disclosing much information to employers that have staff that return positive tests, but Pollock said that if their workplace is deemed a risk, they can issue public notifications of exposure events.
“If there’s any risk identified for the business, for the staff, for the patrons – we would reach out, but we do have to balance that with confidentiality and privacy,” said Pollock.
Parsell said that within the business community there was a lot of further confusion around “not close contacts” and what a business should be doing if there’s a grey area.
Pollock said that for individuals who don’t get any phone calls or warnings who may be unsure need to be very vigilant. “They should be self-monitoring, and that’s something we should all be doing.”
Wrapping up, Clark said that Canada, B.C. and the Elk Valley could see the light at the end of the tunnel thanks to the vaccine.
“We are so close to a situation where large swathes of the population will be able to be immunized,” said Clark, “It gives me tremendous optimism. … a lot of our most vulnerable are now on their way to being protected.”
COVID-19 tests are done locally at the Sparwood Health Centre.
For more information on Covid-19, testing options, or to book online, visit Interior Health’s website at Interiorhealth.ca and select the Sparwood option followed by a preferred time slot.
The Covid-specific call centre is also open for bookings seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. via 1-877-740-7747.
-With files from Phil McLachlan
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