Whistler has continued to see a significant number of COVID-19 cases in the days since public health officials revealed, for the first time, the exact number of cases to hit the resort this year.
“Unfortunately we’re still seeing a lot of people every day, and we’re still seeing a lot of positives every day,” said Dr. Karin Kausky. “Everyone should really double down on the basics of public health guidance around social distancing, wearing masks, hand hygiene and really sticking to an incredibly small bubble.”
With the recent spike in cases, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) organized an 11th-hour community information session on Thursday evening, Jan. 21, with local health, business and community leaders taking a number of COVID-19-related questions from the public.
Offering the most granular and up-to-date figures on the virus in Whistler since the pandemic began, the Sea to Sky’s medical health officer Dr. John Harding revealed that Whistler had seen a total of 103 lab-confirmed cases up to that point. We also learned the resort had 271 cases for the entirety of 2020. (Vancouver Coastal Health [VCH] does not typically share community-specific numbers in small towns when cases are below a certain threshold in order to protect medical privacy.)
“We did see an increase in cases back in November,” Harding said on the well-attended Zoom call. “We’re not seeing as many this time around quite yet. But that said, COVID tends to travel in certain social circles, and the important thing is we have really good COVID safety protocols in Whistler. I can attest to that because of all the contact tracing: we’re not seeing the transmission happen, for the large part, in our businesses and restaurants, and that’s thanks to the COVID protocols people have.”
Harding noted that the majority of the recent transmission has occurred within households, with about 60 to 65 per cent of cases hitting the 20- to 29-year-old demographic. That increases to between 70 to 80 per cent once extending that age range up to 40, Harding said.
The disproportionate impact on Whistler’s young adults is largely a function of the resort’s customer-facing economy and cramped living situations, explained Kausky.
“The COVID pandemic has in our community disproportionately affected a really specific demographic, which are young people that work in the service industry or on the frontlines and in dense, large housing situations. That makes this really difficult,” she said, before commending the job the demographic has done to further prevent the spread.
“It has been so striking to me how committed this demographic is to doing the right thing. I don’t think everyone knows that,” she said. “It is difficult to do the right thing in these situations if you are economically vulnerable—and they’re not doing it for themselves.”
Numerous local businesses have reportedly been impacted by the recent uptick in cases. Whistler Blackcomb said last week that a number of staff may have been exposed and are in self-isolation. Splitz Grill also closed temporarily after a staff member tested positive last week, while Gibbons Hospitality confirmed Monday, Jan. 25 that it had closed the Longhorn Saloon temporarily after a staff member tested positive, as well as a separate potential exposure from guests of the restaurant.
Meanwhile, Hy’s Whistler, El Furniture Warehouse and the Longhorn Saloon were added this week to VCH’s list of potential exposure sites, meaning health officials have not been able to contact everyone who may have been exposed. The potential exposure dates are listed as Jan. 12, and from Jan. 14 to 21 at El Furni’s; Jan. 13, and 15 and 16 at Hy’s; and from Jan. 16 to 25 at the Longhorn.
It’s the second time the Longhorn was added to VCH’s exposure list, after it first appeared there in the fall.
VCH considers the risk of transmission to be low in all three cases, but recommended anyone who attended the establishments during the listed potential exposure dates to self-monitor for symptoms.
At press time, the restaurants were temporarily closed.
During the meeting, local Dr. Olivia Bayley reiterated that COVID care is free and available to all in the community.
“COVID care is free regardless of your immigration status and access to care,” she said.
Given the importance of early detection, she also encouraged anyone who thinks they may have symptoms to call Whistler’s dedicated COVID clinic line at 604-966-1428, between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily.
“If people are noticing that they have some symptoms, don’t hope that they might go away and push on through, but just stay home, give us a call, and get your test done,” she noted, adding that, typically, a patient will obtain a test within 24 hours of notifying the clinic.
Local doctors have been partnering with the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS) to provide relevant information on accessing other social services to anyone getting a COVID test, explained WCSS executive director Jackie Dickinson.
“If you are an individual accessing a test at the Whistler testing site, you’ll get to your phone this piece of information that has your test results, but also how you can reach out to us, how you can book an appointment with us and how you can arrange a food bank delivery,” she said. “We’re trying to create those synergies so there’s less work on your end and it’s easier for you to make the connections.”
For anyone experiencing food insecurity, the food bank remains open from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, while food-bank deliveries are also available by calling the WCSS office line, which is open six days a week, at 604-932-0113. Each delivery also includes hygiene kits for each member of the household to allow them to safely self-isolate.
More information is available at mywcss.org.
Why is VCH sharing COVID numbers now?
A common question that has come up since the onset of the pandemic is why public health authorities do not share specific COVID case numbers in smaller communities like Whistler. According to VCH’s communications policy, caseloads are not publicized in small towns under a certain threshold to protect medical privacy,
“In a small town everybody knows everybody so there’s the concern around that. Secondly, it’s a lot of work to stay on top of these numbers and we do the best we can but it requires a lot of what we call data cleaning to ensure we get those numbers right all the time,” Harding said.
VCH will publish firm numbers, however, “when we have a spike in cases like we currently have,” he noted.
Pique has requested more information from VCH on the formula behind revealing specific case totals, and will update this story online if we hear back.
No interprovincial travel ban
Thursday’s meeting coincided with an announcement from the province that it was not legally entitled to restrict travel into B.C., an option Victoria was exploring in recent days and one that many in Whistler had called for.
“The review of our legal options made it clear we can’t prevent people from travelling to British Columbia. We can impose restrictions on people travelling for non-essential purposes if they are causing harm to the health and safety of British Columbians,” said Premier John Horgan in a statement. “Much of current interprovincial travel is work related and therefore cannot be restricted. Public health officials tell us what is most important is for everyone to obey health orders, wherever they are, rather than imposing mobility rules. Therefore, we will not be imposing travel restrictions at this time.”
Horgan went on to say that if officials see transmission increase due to interprovincial travel, the province would impose stronger restrictions on non-essential travellers.
Unsurprisingly, visitation to the resort slowed to a trickle after the new travel advisory was issued in November, with hotel occupancy hovering around 10 per cent, according to Tourism Whistler (TW). Occupancy rates climbed to 27 per cent in December, with regional visitors making up the vast majority of the uptick, said TW president Barrett Fisher.
“However, when we hit January, that dropped right off, especially after the stay at home [advisory] was put in place,” she noted, adding that TW has halted all of its marketing for the months of January, February and March.
In response to a question about quarantine monitoring, Harding acknowledged there will be some who don’t follow public health guidance “to a tee,” but that as long as the “vast majority of people are following the guidelines the majority of the time,” the spread of the virus will slow down.
“I appreciate some people can’t for a particular reason, whether it be economic, whether they have a loved one they need to care for, whether there’s a funeral,” he said. “Sometimes people have to make decisions that are very hard trying to choose between what’s best for the community and what they may need to do for themselves.”
Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton reiterated that preventing further transmission is everyone’s collective responsibility.
“The conversations I’ve been having with people online is about visitors. One of the things that’s really occurred to me today … is this is an everybody problem,” he said. “This is a traveller problem, it’s a problem for people who’ve lived here 50 years and people who’ve lived here for five months. Everyone needs to respond.”
Anyone with COVID-like symptoms is advised to first consult B.C.’s self-assessment tool at bc.thrive.health/covid19/en. If you meet the self-assessment criteria or you are still concerned, you should call Whistler’s COVID clinic line.