A surge of COVID-19 cases in British Columbia has put the final stage of its reopening plan into doubt, with the health minister and the public-health officer saying new information will come early next week, warning that things have changed.
The province’s fourth and final reopening step was to come into effect Sept. 7. At that stage, masks would become a personal choice and there would be no limits on social gatherings, either outside or inside.
But on Friday, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said she was extending tighter restrictions in all of the Interior Health Authority zone. The restrictions reimpose a mask mandate, reduce limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, and halt intensive indoor fitness classes. The requirements were originally imposed only in the Kelowna area in an effort to curb an explosion of cases in that region.
“It’s very likely that we won’t be seeing a move to any more loosening of restrictions in the near term,” she told reporters.
She said although B.C. has met its immunization targets and hospitalizations have been decreasing, things have changed “quite dramatically” over the past couple of weeks.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province is evaluating its Stage 4 of the reopening plan.
“I don’t think, if we were talking from today, that where we are in terms of cases and hospitalization reflects where we need to be to make that move forward,” he said.
Dr. Henry and Mr. Dix said more information would come as soon as Monday that would guide students, staff, faculty and parents around the reopening of elementary and high schools and postsecondary institutions. Classes are scheduled to start two weeks later.
“We are revising and understanding the impacts of the strains that we’re seeing and the immunization programs that we have,” she said.
“We put out the preliminary guidance in June about the near-normal that we’re expecting to be able to provide to students. ... And now we’re in a different position,” Dr. Henry said.
According to an e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail earlier this week, Shannon Baskerville, the province’s deputy minister of Advanced Education and Skills Training, told faculty heads at the University of Victoria that postsecondary institutions in B.C. cannot implement a mandatory mask or vaccination policy. The e-mail was sent July 29.
Dr. Henry said that letter was not from her.
This week, more than 2,000 people associated with the University of Victoria, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University signed a petition that was sent to Premier John Horgan, Dr. Henry and Mr. Dix, urging the government to require vaccination or regular rapid testing for all individuals who come to campus. It also asked that masks be mandated in all public indoor spaces, including classrooms.
Meanwhile universities in Alberta said they would require mandatory, frequent testing for students who are not vaccinated. Some universities in Ontario are requiring students be vaccinated.
Policies are also different for younger students across the country. In Alberta, the provincial government has left it up to individual school boards to decide. The Toronto school board is requiring all of its students to wear masks. Current guidance for British Columbia has masks as recommended but not required.
B.C. recorded 663 COVID-19 cases on Friday. The seven-day rolling average for cases, at the beginning of July, was around 40, but cases climbed after that. As of Thursday, that number reached 544, according to data released by BC Centre for Disease Control.
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