British Columbia

New health restrictions announced for eastern Fraser Valley amid low vaccination rates

Regional health restrictions will be introduced in the eastern Fraser Valley as the area deals with a spike in cases of COVID-19 and low vaccination rates, health officials announced Tuesday.

Public health order covers Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope, Mission and Agassiz-Harrison

The Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Cancer Centre in Abbotsford, B.C., as seen on Nov. 25, 2020. New regional health restrictions were introduced Tuesday in the eastern Fraser Valley, which includes Abbotsford, as the area sees a surge in cases of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Regional health restrictions will be introduced in the eastern Fraser Valley as the area deals with a spike in cases of COVID-19 and low vaccination rates, health officials announced Tuesday.

The new regional public health order covers Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope, Mission and Agassiz-Harrison.

Officials said those communities are seeing a surge in the number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 — particularly those who are not vaccinated — and the caseload is putting a strain on regional hospitals.

"Not only are people with COVID-19 having challenges ... but people with other conditions are having surgeries postponed [and] are not able to get the care they need," Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during a news conference Tuesday.

"So, we need to take action now."

The province said private gatherings in the eastern valley are now limited to five additional people or one additional household, while outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people — unless "all of the participants are fully vaccinated."

Organized events like weddings or conferences will be limited to 10 people, or 50 people outside, unless everyone is fully vaccinated, which can be verified on the province's vaccine cards.

Places in the area that require a vaccine card will now require proof of two doses, effective immediately.

Ken Popove, the mayor of Chilliwack, said the new restrictions were not surprising.

"I've been following the numbers and hospital visits, and they're going in the wrong direction," he said. 

Popove said he had confidences businesses would be able to respond to the changes effectively, but expressed disappointment over the region's lower-than-average vaccine uptake.

"I just don't know why we're at where we're at. It's disappointing."

The province has taken a similar approach with restrictions in Interior Health and Northern Health, which have also seen an increase in cases and decreased vaccination rates.

"Simply put, we need more people to get immunized," said Health Minister Adrian Dix.

3rd vaccine dose coming for seniors in care

Separately, the province also announced Tuesday it will begin providing a third vaccine dose next week to seniors living in long-term or assisted living facilities. 

 

Those residents will also have access to "a high-dose" influenza vaccine for protection as the traditional cold and flu season arrives.

"We know that our seniors and elders have carried a heavy burden and we continue to see cases in these homes," said Henry.

School notifications

Also starting Tuesday, all of the health authorities in B.C. will begin posting information about "potential exposure events" at K-12 schools online.

The change is part of the province's updated COVID-19 notification program for students and their families.

The five health authorities will post the name of the school and exposure dates in the event a person — staff or student — went to school while they were infectious, leading to an increased risk to those around them. 

People who personally need to take action because of an increased risk will be notified directly, according to the ministry.

Last week, Henry said feedback from parents and teachers across the province made it clear they want more information about how the virus is spreading in schools.

The president of the B.C. Principals' & Vice Principals' Association Darren Danyluk said while exposure notifications allow for more transparency, he hopes the new system provides meaningful communication, adding that some communities were getting inundated with notices last year. 

"Depending on where you were in the province, those notifications were very frequent, to the degree that in some communities I've heard it described as white noise," he told CBC's The Early Edition on Tuesday.

"It was such a flow of those notices that they really became meaningless and they weren't helpful in terms of addressing COVID concerns or alleviating the sense of anxiety in the community."

This year, he says he's seen a greater degree of concern from parents, especially as the virus continues to spread in the community. 

"When [COVID-19] is in the community, whether there's a notice going home or not, people learn of it. And without notification of some kind from the school or from the health authority, there's a concern for transparency and trust is impacted," he said.

Meanwhile, case rates in children were increasing before classes started in both the northern and Interior health authorities, where vaccination rates are also lower compared with other regions including Vancouver coastal and Vancouver Island, Henry said.

However, she acknowledged there have been long waits for COVID-19 tests in the Northern Health region, especially in Prince George, since cases started taking off a few weeks ago.

Many among the 500 children being tested daily actually have cold viruses, but anyone with symptoms should be kept at home as the seasonal flu season arrives, Henry said.

Vancouver schools mandate masks for K-12

The province did not mandate masks for Kindergarten to Grade 3 children after Vancouver School Board trustees became the first in the province to vote unanimously Monday in favour of requiring face coverings to be worn by younger children.

School board chair Carmen Cho said concerns from parents prompted the meeting and that staff were meeting Tuesday to discuss when the policy could be implemented.

"The fact is we are still very much in a pandemic and those that are most impacted are the unvaccinated, so trustees felt it was important to add an additional layer of protection as we continue to look at different ways to limit the spread of COVID-19,'' Cho said.

"Since the start of the school year trustees have been receiving emails from parents in the district, letting us know that this was a concern.''

WATCH | Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines her reasoning for not expanding the mask mandate in B.C. schools:

Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why B.C. won't introduce mask mandate for K-3 students

22 days ago
1:18
B.C.'s provincial health officer says schools have other COVID-19 measures in place, after being asked whether the province would follow the Vancouver School Board in mandating masks for students between kindergarten and Grade 3. 1:18


Nadine Kelln, who has daughters in grades 3 and 7, said she was hoping for a provincewide mask mandate to protect children at least until parents can make a choice to get their kids vaccinated, whenever that is possible.

The Delta, B.C., mother said her children had been learning at home until this month to protect the health of an immunocompromised family member, but her daughter in Grade 3 hasn't had any issues with wearing a mask at school.

"Going to school full time wearing a mask all day, it's been no problem at all for her. I think she feels more comfortable wearing it because she feels she's safe.''

Vaccination rates

People who are not fully vaccinated continue to account for the vast majority of new cases and hospitalizations in B.C.

As of Tuesday, 87.8 per cent of those 12 and older in B.C. have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 80.6 per cent a second dose.

Overall hospitalizations, which typically lag behind spikes and dips in new cases, are up by three per cent from last Tuesday and about 98.7 per cent from a month ago.

The number of patients in intensive care is down by about 9.6 per cent from a week ago, but up by 67.8 per cent from last month.

British Columbians are required to show a vaccine card proving they have been immunized to access many activities and services. Adults aged 19 and over also need to show a government-issued piece of photo ID.

Cards are available through the provincial Health Gateway website and can be downloaded to a mobile device or printed.

As of Monday, British Columbians can no longer use their original proof of vaccination and will have to use the province's official vaccine card in digital or paper form.

Anyone who is eligible for immunization and has not yet received their first and/or second dose can do so by booking an appointment online, calling 1-833-838-2323, or registering in person at a Service B.C. location.

With files from The Early Edition, On The Coast

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