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Demand for COVID-19 testing in Whistler stays steady following holidays

A recent drop in Howe Sound's weekly caseload isn't necessarily representative of community transmission, says doctor
bc covid case map
Whistler's Local Health Area logged 208 recorded cases of COVID-19 in the week following Christmas, but that number doesn't account for all rapid test results in the region.

While B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday, Jan. 11 that she’s “getting the sense that we have levelled off somewhat,” in terms of COVID-19 infections, local officials caution that a relative dip in the number of cases recorded in Whistler’s local health area during the last week of December may not paint the full picture of transmission within the community.

Currently, “the vast majority” of people seeking COVID-19 testing in the resort are being provided with take-home rapid tests, which aren’t included in the official counts, said Whistler Medical Clinic’s Dr. Karin Kausky.

The Howe Sound Local Health Area (LHA), which includes Whistler, Pemberton, Squamish and parts of the southern Stl’atl’imx Nation, recorded 208 confirmed cases of COVID-19 between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1.

That’s down from the all-time high of 391 cases recorded in the region the week prior, between Dec. 19 and 25, but more than the 125 cases logged between Dec. 12 and 18, and far greater than the double-digit weekly case counts the LHA was registering prior to the Omicron variant’s surge. (B.C. LHA weekly COVID-19 case counts for the most recent seven-day period spanning Sunday to Saturday are released each Wednesday, after Pique’s print deadline.)

While those numbers have long served as an important measuring stick for transmission across the corridor, daily and weekly caseloads can no longer be relied on as an accurate representation of the number of active cases in a given community.

“We’re not counting cases like we used to. We’re just at a part of the pandemic where that may not be the most useful information,” said Kausky.

“We’ve also heard Bonnie Henry say, once we have this level of community transmission of Omicron, if you have classic signs and symptoms, it doesn’t even make sense to do the rapid tests. It’s definitely an option to stay home and self-isolate.”

For locals living in shared accommodation, “there’s probably no need to test 15 people that all live together who have similar symptoms,” Kausky added. “I think if somebody’s tested positive, then you can just assume everybody’s positive and do the five days of isolation—which is quite a bit shorter [than previous isolation guidelines]—and then wear a mask for the following five days.”

Rather than gauging transmission through case counts, experts are now looking more closely at hospitalization rates and test positivity—data that’s far harder to nail down for smaller areas.

Henry acknowledged Tuesday that hospitalizations have been rising in recent weeks, reaching an eight-month high on Jan. 11. As such, public health orders “are likely to remain unchanged” for the time being, the provincial health officer explained. Health Minister Adrian Dix provided data to show that B.C. hospitals are not yet overwhelmed, with nearly 81.2 per cent of B.C.’s total acute- care beds filled.

More detailed modelling on hospitalizations will be released Friday.

“I want to encourage people this wave is moving quickly. And it means you need to do everything to protect yourself right now. And we know that this wave will move through quickly as well,” Henry said.

“We tend to see this with any pathogen that has a shorter incubation period, you see these rapidly explosive growth [periods], and you also see a rapid decrease once a certain level has been reached in the population.”

Henry cautioned, however, that is far from a certainty and some other countries are having different, more severe experiences with the Omicron wave.

Demand for testing in the resort is also levelling off since it skyrocketed last month, said Kausky.

“We had a massive increase pre-Christmas, and I think it’s stayed pretty steady” since, she explained.

Those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms—including a runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever—can access a rapid test in Whistler, available at a distribution site in Olympic Plaza that’s open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

Health-care workers and those experiencing severe symptoms qualify for the more-reliable PCR test, which can be booked by texting Whistler’s COVID-19 testing line at 604-966-1428.

Though Whistler’s medical facilities are not immune to the wide-scale staff shortages that have accompanied the recent explosion in local cases, Kausky said the resort has rallied together to help keep up with the demand. In particular, the clinic’s COVID-19 response efforts have received tremendous support from the Resort Municipality of Whistler and Whistler Community Services Society in recent weeks, she explained.

“They’ve been partnering with us in scaling up in this incredibly big way, so that’s been really motivating and really nice to get to work with our community partners, and I think that’s what keeps everybody’s morale up as well." 

Volunteers have been working to assemble rapid test kids, while the municipality has been supplying help with staff, logistics and space, Kausky added, "So it has really been, once again, an incredibly collaborative community effort.”

HAVE YOU HAD COVID-19 RECENTLY? CHANCES ARE HIGH YOUR ANSWER IS ‘YES’ 

Pique ran a poll on its website last week that asked 286 readers whether they’d caught the virus recently. (Of those 286 respondents, 73 are from within the Whistler community.)

More than 52 per cent of both local and total respondents answered ‘Yes,’ they’ve had COVID-19 recently. More than 45 per cent of locals and 43 per cent of total respondents said ‘No,’ but acknowledged they know someone who did, while less than three per cent of locals and 4.5 per cent of all respondents replied ‘No,’ and said they I didn’t know anyone who has.

The margin of error for the poll is +/- 5.72%, 19 times out of 20.

With files from Glen Korstrom and Colin Dacre, Castanet