British Columbia

Relief and excitement as mass vaccination clinic opens in Whistler

Stephanie Burns was first in line Monday as a mass vaccination COVID-19 clinic opened up at the convention centre in Whistler, B.C.

All adults in the B.C. resort community are now eligible for the shot following spike in numbers

A man is framed by closed shops as he rides his bike in Whistler, B.C., on May 15, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Stephanie Burns was first in line Monday as a mass vaccination COVID-19 clinic opened up at the convention centre in Whistler, B.C.

"I thought a lot more people would be here, so I left a lot of time," she joked as she spoke with CBC News in front of a relatively sparse lineup.

"Everybody I've talked to is very excited and stoked this is happening in Whistler."

All adults who live and work in Whistler are eligible to receive a vaccine beginning this week. Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) launched the two-week vaccination campaign because the virus continues to race through the resort community, with more than 1,500 confirmed cases and three surges since the beginning of the year.

According to VCH, the Howe Sound region where Whistler is located currently has the highest rate of COVID-19 of any local health area in B.C.

Many of Whistler's recent cases were determined to be the P1 strain of the virus originally found in Brazil, which is three times more infectious than the original strain of coronavirus and more virulent among young people. 

Some Whistler residents line up outside the convention centre Monday morning as all adults became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (CBC)

Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton said that by his estimate, roughly 15,000 people will be eligible in the area. The community has struggled to keep case counts low as visitors continued to visit the mountain, while a large number of locals live in close quarters because of a housing shortage.

"Certainly, housing is one of the things that is a real risk factor for our community — people are housed in congregate settings [with] six, eight people in one house and that really exposed us to some risk," he said.

"What has been a challenge with the variant is it came so quickly and so fast. I think [the province] responded well and took action that was, I think, difficult and certainly had a huge impact on our community but ultimately has allowed the spread to slow, to some measure."

'Tourism pays our bills'

The province shut down the resort at the end of March because too many people were travelling there, and Whistler-Blackcomb has decided not to reopen once the provincial health order lifts on Monday.

Local store owner Natalie Gabriel said she was excited and relieved to see a mass vaccination clinic in Whistler. She said it was unnerving to see tourists flocking to the community at the same time COVID-19 numbers were surging.

"Tourism pays our bills and for us to serve the tourists, we need to be able to be healthy and make them secure to come into our village," she said.

Those who received their first dose of a vaccine on Monday said they were impressed with how smooth the process was, but also aware that the end of the pandemic is still a long time in the future — especially with the summer season approaching and more tourists on the way.

"It's not some kind of shield of immunity. I'm still going to mask up and follow the rules," Dave Fitzgerald said.

Those eligible for a vaccine in Whistler must provide proof of their permanent residency or a recent pay stub to confirm they work in the area.

With files from Greg Rasmussen, Rhianna Schmunk and Bethany Lindsay

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