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Attendees at March 10 Pemberton council meeting exposed to COVID-19

Village taking pandemic in stride, while grocery store, medical clinic making changes to serve clients more safely
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An attendee at the March 10 Village of Pemberton Council meeting later tested positive for COVID-19. Google Street View

If you attended the March 10 Village of Pemberton (VOP) council meeting, you may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Just before 11 a.m. on Monday, March 16, the VOP sent an email to notify anyone else at the meeting that they may have been exposed. The meeting was held between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. at 7400 Prospect St.

The email said that VOP staff members had been in contact with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) regarding the case, but VCH has not provided further insight into the person's conditions nor offered instructions on what council attendees should do.

The VOP email advises attendees to monitor their health for fever, cough, malaise, runny nose, fatigue, sore throat, nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting until March 25, and to avoid public areas "where you cannot easily separate yourself from others if you become ill."

The VOP said it would update attendees with further information as it receives it from VCH.

Mayor Mike Richman said on March 17 that the VOP had reached everyone in attendance at the meeting via email.

"We did that on our own through Village channels so that people can monitor their symptoms more than they would have or keep an eye on [themselves] or self-isolate, depending on their own approach," he said.

Pointing to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry telling attendees of the Pacific Dental Conference to self-isolate immediately, Richman said the VOP has inquired of VCH as to whether the council meeting's attendees should take similar precautions. Until they hear back from VCH, Richman and councillors are following health officials' recommendations.

"We're not going out where we don't need to," he said. "We're doing everything that was recommended, monitoring our own health."

Pique was alerted to this new case after a reporter who was in attendance at the meeting received the email. Generally, specific locations of positive cases are not given out due to privacy concerns.

"Anyone who may be at risk of exposure to COVID-19 gets contacted by the public health officials who are supporting confirmed cases and their close contacts," provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in an emailed statement to Pique last weekend.

"We will not be identifying the specific location of confirmed cases unless public health providers cannot be certain they have reached all those who need to be contacted and who therefore might be a risk to the public."

This latest report follows the announcement on Saturday, March 14 that there were two other confirmed cases in the community.

Richman said on March 16 that one of the two cases diagnosed in Pemberton was an out-of-town resident who has since returned home, but on March 17, said that the VOP was told this, but it wasn't confirmed. The other affected person is self-isolating and recovering.

The two affected people were at a community information session at the Pemberton & District Community Centre on March 11. Richman said on March 16 that those in attendance had been notified, but there hadn't been any notable subsequent bump in requests for tests.

"As far as I know, nobody else presented symptoms," he said. "The testing demands have been low today at the clinic, so I think people are heeding the recommendations of Vancouver Coastal Health."

In terms of how to run council going forward, Richman said current bylaws have physical attendance and public-access requirements. The VOP is consulting with the provincial government about how to carry on, he said, floating electronic access as a possible solution. The next meeting is scheduled for April 7.

DOCTOR ON CALL

Over at the Pemberton Medical Clinic, March 16 was its first day of offering telemedicine appointments to patients who are already registered with the clinic via Doxy.me.

"Accessing these appointments can be done through your smartphones, tablets or laptops with a front-facing camera and you do NOT need to download any apps for this," the clinic posted to Facebook on March 15.

"We want to keep the at-risk population at home ... it's better to get them online like that rather than have them sit down in the waiting room," said Dr. Will Ho, who worked over the weekend to ensure the service was available as quickly as possible to reduce the number of unnecessary or unsafe trips to the clinic.

"Because we are a rural community, we are a bit more nimble and able to adapt to this situation."

The clinic sees patients from from Mount Currie and D'Arcy as well, and as much as possible, the new system should be used as a primary point of contact with medical staff before coming in to the clinic.

"We're trying to get everyone to touch base through this [portal],"said Ho, noting that he's already had to tell a patient to come in for tests that could only be administered in person, such as taking a blood-pressure reading.

The telemedicine appointments are also allowing for more doctors to be made available, as one of the Pemberton clinic's doctors who is high risk for COVID-19 can keep meeting with patients from home.

Ho said the clinic's staff members are holding up well and appreciated the province releasing an online COVID-19 self-assessment (https://covid19.thrive.health/) on March 17.

He understands those that are frustrated with the way information is being distributed, but said he respects the way officials are keeping the public updated while ensuring everything released is accurate and respectful of patient privacy.

"I appreciate that there is a little bit of frustration from the residents around here around information flow," he said. "It's a very rapidly evolving environment that we're even having to try to keep up with. I think the information flow is as good as it can be at this point."

For more information on the clinic's telemedicine offerings, visit https://www.pembertonmedicalclinic.ca/telemedicine.

SHOPPING SAFETY

On March 16, there was good news for seniors and others who are potentially more susceptible to COVID-19 as the Pemberton Valley Supermarket started offering one hour of shopping exclusively for them between 8 and 9 a.m. before the general public was allowed in.

General manager Kirsten McLeod said on March 17 that public response has been positive. While it is operating on the honour system, McLeod's observations are that only those who require it are using it.

"People are respecting it right now. I have heard that it didn't work in other places, but we're not at that point yet. The community is really supporting that and making sure that they're not in here during those hours," she said. "We really can't ask somebody what their health conditions are if they're immune-compromised.

"So far, it's mostly elderly [people] right now."

McLeod said the store has ramped up its sanitizing efforts both when it is open and leading into its first hour for vulnerable shoppers. Among the initiatives it is taking is hourly sanitizing of commonly touched areas such as bathrooms, baskets, carts, and door handles, as well as more frequent general cleaning.

Between the extra sanitization efforts and additional stocking at a time when some of its workforce is staying home due to illness and/or their own vulnerabilities, McLeod asks that shoppers remain patient and calm. For the most part, she has experienced co-operation from the community.

As well, the supermarket receives new product shipments every day except for Sunday, so items will be replenished regularly.

"We're definitely seeing a little bit of hoarding but most people are being pretty rational. Locals are being pretty rational. I don't see people like I see on the news with whole baskets full of toilet paper or anything," she said. "We still have toilet paper, so I'm happy about that.

"Right now, the biggest challenge is that the suppliers are not ready for this. If there are shortages now, they will get caught up, but the hoarding is not helping that.

"[We're] making sure that everybody gets a little bit of what they need for two weeks so supply chains can catch up."

McLeod described the store's supply as "decent right now," noting that the only items not in stock are those such as hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies, which have dried up all over, as well as a handful of produce items. Items like bleach, soap and disinfecting dish soap remain available, however.

As well, with most residents seemingly stocked up at this point, McLeod said the crowds have stayed away and she expects a bit of a reprieve to come.

She added that those who are sick should not come to the store and that a healthy friend or family member should shop on their behalf. If this is not possible, as a last resort, these people can call the store at 604-894-3663 and leave a message to make arrangements.

"If they absolutely cannot find any other solutions, give us a call and we'll see if we can find somebody who can help them out to get their groceries," she said. "Definitely do not come into the store if you're sick."

THE WHEELS KEEP TURNING

Mayor Richman said local residents are generally doing their best to keep on with their lives during the new era of social distancing and isolation.

"There's some confusion and lots of questions, and a big part of our role is to help people find out answers and get the right messages out, to keep people's concerns in check from growing out of proportion," he said on March 16. "The sense of community is awesome. Many are still going about their business and people are working in safe manners."

As for how the municipality is working to stem the virus' spread, Richman said that VOP staff has been in regular contact with doctors at the clinic to ensure that they have anything that they might need, and to ensure that the village is getting the correct and most informative health information to the public.

"We've been meeting frequently with the local doctors on the ground so that we can understand their needs, how we can best support them, how we can bridge their work through other work and other organizations," he said.

Richman said that the VOP is prepared to set up tenting areas at the clinic as necessary to allow for separate testing, though that hasn't yet been required.

"We've got everything ready to go, but at this point, we haven't needed it. There hasn't been that much demand yet, and we don't want to put it up until there's the demand," he said. "We don't want to mobilize certain things until needed because that will just draw on those human resources before we need to. We want to make sure, and the doctors want to make sure, that we're meeting the demand and that we're ready for the next-case scenario."

Richman added that the village as set up a Level One Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) in order to access further provincial resources if needed.

"There's not a lot of activity in the EOC at this point," he said. "We don't want to behave irrationally. We want to be ready as things change, so let's set up an EOC.

"If we need it, it's a source of support for our doctors and we'll use it, and an again, EOCs are also used to access resources from the provincial government."

As well, the VOP has been in contact with its neighbouring municipalities to ensure that resources and staff are being used properly and as efficiently as possible.

"We want to be prepared for whatever eventualities we can. As resources from our health authorities get moved around the province as needed, we want to make sure that locally, we can pool the resources that we do have," Richman said.

In terms of the VOP itself, the town offices are closed, though staff members continue to answer emails and phone calls. As well, essential services including water, sewer and fire services remain available and Richman stressed that the VOP is ensuring that those services continue uninterrupted. While the VOP is in the process of prioritizing which projects will continue and which will be put on the backburner, he said day-to-day work such as processing building permits will continue.

Richman added that while the preventative measures may seem drastic, the cautious approach should not be taken as panic.

"We don't want to overwhelm our health-care system," he said. "We want to make sure that we're keeping ourselves healthy so that we're not putting more vulnerable people with immune deficiencies at risk.

"Let's calm the growth of this virus down so we can allow medicine to catch up, so we can allow medical professionals the ability to deal with those that really need care."

Richman said local residents with questions can reach out to him at any time at 604-966-6309 or mrichman@pemberton.ca.

COMMUNITY RESPONSE

When Nicola Jones' five-year-old son lost a tooth recently, he wasn't sure if he should expect the Tooth Fairy to provide him his well-deserved reward with the family practicing social distancing.

Such is life in Pemberton in the COVID-19 era.

However, in an attempt to keep things as normal as possible at a time when playdates and other non-essential outings are off-limits, the overnight exchange was made and Jones' son received his payment. But Jones is well aware that might not be the case for all the village's children as uncertainty swirls in the community.

A science journalist and Pique contributor, she said her family is in a "very fortunate position" since she's able to work from home with steady, consistent projects while her husband can take care of their two children—once he's recovered from his cold. It's clear, though, that other families are stuck in a more precarious situation.

"We're all a bit confused by the new state of life that seems to have quite suddenly changed," she said. "Some people, of course, are going to be really seriously struggling. There are people who are going from double-income families to single-income families because a restaurant closed or the mountain closed."

A compounding issue for working parents is that students are out of school indefinitely, and daycares are closed and camps are cancelled.