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Masks mandatory again in indoor public spaces for parts of B.C.’s Interior as region sees spike in cases

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VANCOUVER —
A rising number of COVID-19 infections has led health officials to declare an outbreak in B.C.’s Central Okanagan and impose sweeping new measures to curb the spread of the disease.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Sue Pollock, chief medical health officer for the Interior Health Authority, made the announcement during a last-minute news conference Wednesday.

The announcement comes after Interior Health, which covers the Okanagan, Thompson-Cariboo-Shuswap and the Kootenays, saw a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases. In the last six pandemic reports from the provincial health ministry, Interior Health recorded the highest number of positive tests, more than any other authority.

Pollock told CTV News 323 cases have been identified in the Central Okanagan since July 1, and that 97 per cent of those infected were either partially vaccinated or not vaccinated. More than two thirds of them were in their 20s or 30s.

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The new rules are in place for Central Okanagan specifically, which includes Kelowna, West Kelowna, Peachland and Lake Country.

Starting at midnight, a public health order will make masks mandatory for indoor public spaces in the region.

People will also be encouraged to wear masks outdoors if they can’t distance and if they aren’t immunized. The mask rule does not apply to children under the age of 12.

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“Alongside masking we’ll be reinforcing the importance of physical distancing, staying home if sick and seeking testing if symptomatic,” Pollock said.

Non-essential travel is discouraged into the Central Okanagan region for those who aren’t fully vaccinated and while the outbreak is ongoing. Asked what that means for families planning trips to the region or who are there already, Pollock suggested they make decisions in the best interests of their loved ones.

She said the virus is circulating in the community, and many cases do not have a clear origin point.

“We do know from interviews of all of our cases that about a third of them have an unknown exposure, which means we don’t know where they actually acquired COVID-19,” Pollock said.

Officials noted the Delta variant – thought to be highly transmissible – is driving much of the spread.

The province is in Step 3 of its restart plan and officials said they’ll also be reinforcing the rules that are in place under that step, including rules at businesses. 

However, bars, restaurants, gyms, casinos and nightclubs are all allowed to remain open, but must have safety measures in place including mandatory masks and not allowing guests to socialize between tables.

Pollack did say that officials will follow up with all businesses that have three or more COVID-19 cases linked to their establishment and may order them to close temporarily.

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Officials are also recommending that gatherings – especially large ones – be held outdoors instead of indoors.

“We are concerned in public health about the quite rapid increase in numbers of people being affected by COVID-19 in the Central Okanagan, particularly in and around the Kelowna area,” Henry said.

As of Tuesday, there were 412 active cases in Interior Health out of a total of 783 active cases province-wide.

Henry said in the past week there have been 240 cases in the Central Okanagan region specifically, calling that a “good proportion” of the cases recorded across the province.

As well, according to data presented by officials Tuesday, Interior Health had the second-highest rate of unvaccinated people in B.C., as of July 23. Those figures showed 26.2 per cent of people in that region hadn’t received even a single vaccine dose, as of that day. Province-wide, that figure was 19.6 on July 23.

Henry explained most of the recent cases have been in “young people,” who have been last to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Health officials also said they want to speed up vaccination in the region. To do so, the interval between first and second COVID-19 doses will be reduced to 28 days – or four weeks – instead of seven weeks.

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Henry said British Columbians can look at this focus on the Central Okanagan as a wake-up call, saying health officials are more likely to implement regional restrictions rather than province-wide ones.

“As we move out of the pandemic, we no longer need to take broad sector, societal, provincial measures to try and stem the transmission of this virus,” she said. “But we still need to take some measures in those areas where we’re seeing high levels of transmission.” 

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