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Mask mandate returns to B.C. region hit by COVID-19 outbreak

During a press conference Wednesday, Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Sue Pollock declared a new COVID-19 outbreak across the entire Central Okanagan region.
A woman wears a non-medical face mask while grocery shopping. On Wednesday, the province announced it would be reinstating a mask mandate in the Central Okanagan as COVID-19 climb again. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

About 240 new COVID-19 cases have been identified amongst Central Okanagan residents in the past week, resulting in the reintroduction of the indoor public mask mandate in the region starting at midnight (July 29).

The 240 cases, making up about half of the province's cases in the past week, have largely been amongst people aged 20 to 40 who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

During a news conference Wednesday afternoon (July 28), Dr. Bonnie Henry noted the more-transmissible Delta variant has largely been responsible for the large outbreak in the Central Okanagan.

But despite the growth in case numbers, those most vulnerable continue to largely be protected by immunization, and hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus remain low. Additionally, few of the new infections are among children.

Interior Health chief medical health officer Dr. Sue Pollock said about 50 per cent of the new cases in the region are linked to social gatherings, workplaces and home settings, but public health has been unable to determine where transmission occurred for about 30 per cent of the cases.

“We do have more wider spread community transmission happening,” she said.

“We don't have a particular party, or one event, that we're linking the majority of cases to, but certainly those social gatherings and private gatherings are one factor here.”

Dr. Henry said they have seen the transmission of the virus spread from residents of the Central Okanagan to other places in the province — and vice versa — and she is now recommending those who are unvaccinated not travel for non-essential purposes.

Meanwhile, no enforceable travel restrictions have been implemented and a number of restaurants across the Central Okanagan have recently closed down due to staff members contracting the virus.

“We will be following up with all businesses who have three or more COVID-19 cases linked to their establishment, and if necessary we will be ordering them to close,” Dr. Pollock said, noting they'll be working with businesses on a case-by-case basis.

Similar to what occurred during the cluster of cases in downtown Kelowna last summer, Interior Health will also be increasing its enforcement of COVID-19 measures in local businesses.

“Going out, often in the evening hours and on weekends, to these local businesses in the downtown core, in part to provide education, to review the COVID safety measures with the businesses, to do some observations of what's occurring in the businesses, but also to provide as needed some enforcement for those businesses that are not following measures,” Dr. Pollock said.

Due to the outbreak, Interior Health is now recommending all personal gatherings and events in the Central Okanagan take place outdoors when possible. Indoor events remain capped at 50 per cent of a space's capacity, or 50 people, whichever is greater.

Casinos can remain open during the outbreak, but masks will be required, while nightclubs will also remain open, with up to 10 people per table. Dr. Pollock added there can be no socializing between tables and no dancing at these venues.

There will be no change to liquor service hours with the new measures, but patrons of bars and restaurants must now wear masks again while not seated at their table.

Dr. Pollock noted some of the new cases in the region have been linked to gyms and other fitness facilities, but these can continue to operate as long as people are wearing masks inside.

Finally, the time interval between vaccine doses for residents in the Central Okanagan has been reduced to 28 days, down from 49 days for the rest of the province. Vaccination rates in the Interior are slightly below that of the rest of the province, with 74.2 per cent of people 12 and older having received a single dose, while 60 per cent have received their second.