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High elevation, high numbers: B.C. resort towns report COVID spikes

Resort communities are at more risk, according to Dr. Karin Goodison of Interior Health
Skiers on the Boomerang Chair at Fernie Alpine Resort. (Scott Tibballs / The Free Press)

As Omicron runs rampant throughout the province, three mountain communities boast the highest case rates in the Interior Health (IH) region- Revelstoke, Fernie and Golden, in that order.

In the week following Christmas, Revelstoke saw 257 new cases and a case rate of 336 cases per population of 100,000, Fernie reported 211 new cases and a case rate of 198, and Golden saw 81 new cases and a case rate of 152, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).

Each community has a permanent population below 10,000, yet sees an influx of non-permanent residents during winter months due to tourist activity and temporary workers. The City of Revelstoke said that the population of the community nearly doubles by the end of December according to TELUS Insights.

Resort communities at higher risk

All three communities are adjacent to popular ski hills, which have made vaccination mandatory for both staff and guests.

Matt Mosteller, who is an executive with Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which has resorts in Golden and Fernie, said that the steps they took to combat the spread of COVID-19 made them one of the few resorts in North America with such strong requirements.

“This combined with extra levels of safety protocols that we had already put in place, like masking, distancing and cleaning regime have given us the best possible level of safety and care,” said Mosteller.

“But Omicron is rabid and more than likely will hit hard and fast. Our focus is making sure that we are proactive with care for the team and daily health checks and to make sure of any symptoms that immediate action is taken to stay home and isolate and access either rapid test at home if possible and or PCR Test.”

Outbreaks have still happened, with Revelstoke Mountain Resort seeing approximately 90 staff fall ill to start the season, a percentage of which tested positive for COVID.

The link between these communities and being hotspots for COVID hasn’t gone unnoticed by IH, with medical health officer Dr. Karin Goodison, saying that tourism and travel put them at higher risk.

“Any of our resort towns, with incentives to travel to a community, would all increase potential risk. With Omicron, transmission is rapid, so it can really take off throughout a community,” said Dr. Goodison.

“Particularly as the timing of this occurred with Omicron being introduced around Christmas break.”

Dr. Trina Larsen Soles, a senior physician in Golden, says that the risk of transmission comes not from the outdoor activity itself at resorts, but from the indoor components and socialization after the fact.

“The only real potential risk of the actual sport of skiing would be in the enclosed gondola with a potential stranger who was positive who wasn’t masked,” she said.

“I think most of the cases that we’re seeing have all been from direct contact with cases and social events around New Years and Christmas.”

READ MORE: RCR To require proof of vaccination for guests

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Local economy taking a hit

However, it’s not the first time any of these communities have been hotspots.

Golden has ranked among the highest case rates across Interior Health three times now, while both Revelstoke and Fernie have had ‘community clusters’ declared in the past.

The rise in cases can have an impact on the local economy for these small towns, with a number of Revelstoke businesses resorting to unforeseen closures and reduced hours, worsening an already tough labour shortage that has been present in all three mountain towns since the onset of the pandemic.

Revelstoke’s test positivity rate of 62 per cent is among the highest in the province as Interior Health ramps up testing in the community.

Ingrid Bron, Revelstoke’s director of community economic development, said that the influx of visitors from other communities including tourists, travelling athletes, extended families of residents and those returning to the community for the holidays is a factor in the number of cases.

“Cold weather, limited rental accommodation, and quarantine requirements have kept people indoors in close proximity over the holidays which increases exposure,” said Bron. She added that she expects the virus to spread to other communities when these individuals leave Revelstoke.

The spike in the Fernie Local Health Area (LHA)- which covers the entire Elk Valley and South Country - has also wreaked havoc.

“Omicron is here,” said Dr. Chalmers-Nixon of the Elk Valley Hospital Medical Staff Association.

“The positivity case rate is higher than ever before and combined with the inability to test everyone, we have to assume anyone with symptoms has COVID.”

Chalmers-Nixon said that the latest numbers from the BC CDC were showing a 22 per cent positivity rate in Interior Health, but it’s much higher locally, at 52 per cent, which she bluntly described as “unreal”.

She added that the current spike is due to how easily Omicron spreads, and not because people are getting complacent.

The outbreak is so rampant that the City of Fernie has warned residents to expect service disruptions as of Jan. 6.

“We are in a unique situation as both a border community and a destination, so we need everyone to use all the layers of protection to keep themselves safe and help limit the spread,” said Mayor Ange Qualizza.

Read more: Labour shortage not going away any time soon: BDC report

Role of the provincial border

Within the Fernie LHA, the community of Sparwood, located on the Alberta border, sees tourists travelling to resorts further west, and workers coming from all over to work in the Elk Valley coal mines.

Mayor of Sparwood, David Wilks said he doesn’t believe Fernie LHA being a border community is the reason for the spikebecause any cases from out of province weren’t counted in the Fernie LHA.

Dr. Goodison says that there simply isn’t enough data to back up the claim that being along the border causes higher rates of infection.

“We were trying to get a sense for it earlier in the pandemic, about whether travel from other provinces, such as Alberta, was influential, but it’s very hard to determine that based on looking at results alone,” said Dr. Goodison.

“We just don’t have a way to measure that.”

READ MORE: Golden sees 81 new cases of COVID-19

Communities doing their best to mitigate spread

Revelstoke has the highest rate of vaccination in the Interior Health region at over 95 per cent, which, according to Mayor Gary Sulz, will lead to lower complications in individuals and lessen the impact on the local health care system.

Golden, like Fernie and Revelstoke, boasts a high vaccination rate, but that hasn’t stopped Omicron.

“I think our community overall has tried really hard to do everything they can to slow this down,” said Larsen-Soles.

“Whenever they flip public health recommendations, people just roll with it. I know there’s a certain amount of fatigue, but the main concern still is overwhelming the health care system.”

Larsen-Soles also says that while the rising case counts can be frustrating, Omicron has been shown to cause less serious illness amongst those who are vaccinated.

“If you haven’t had your first dose, now’s a great time,” added Dr. Goodison.

“If you’ve missed a second dose if you’re due for your booster, now is the time.”

As for a road back to normal, Larsen-Soles says that there’s a bumpy few months ahead, but she does see an end - eventually.

“Everyone will develop some form of immunity, either from vaccination or from exposure, I think it’s going to transform itself into what some people are claiming it’s been from the beginning: a cold or the flu.”

Rob Morrison, MP for Kootenay-Columbia that covers Golden, Revelstoke and Fernie, hopes border testing can be implemented for international tourists who support local businesses, thereby supporting the locals who staff those establishments by giving them work.

Morrison has also been vocal in his support for rapid testing as a way out of the pandemic.

For now, all these three communities can do is hunker down and stay safe, and wait for the most recent wave to hopefully pass them by.

READ MORE: No appointment necessary for rapid COVID tests in Interior Health

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