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Health officials are issuing a stern reminder about COVID-19 safety in Kelowna, B.C., as a cluster of cases linked to Canada Day events has now evolved into widespread community transmission.

In the first week of July, revellers flocked to the Okanagan Valley city and packed private parties in vacation rentals, resorts and houseboats. In the following weeks, dozens of people who attended these events began testing positive for coronavirus. As of Tuesday, contact tracers had confirmed 79 cases. But it soon became apparent that the virus had spread even further.

“We now know the situation has shifted into more broad community transmission beyond these initial cases in downtown Kelowna,” Interior Health said in a statement.

The health authority has now changed its reporting criteria to include those community transmission cases and more accurately reflect the situation in Kelowna. Along with four new confirmed cases on Thursday, the “Kelowna cluster” now comprises 130 COVID-19 cases – more than half of all active cases in British Columbia. In comparison, the city had just four cases in late June.

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About 1,000 other people across B.C. were also required to self-isolate as a result of exposures to those confirmed cases.

Interior Health Medical Health Officer Silvina Mema said officials can’t say conclusively how many of the 130 cases can be traced back to Canada Day events without genome sequencing, but it’s clear the parties had serious ramifications.

“It was very slow [in June] compared to what we began to see after July 1,” she said. “The lesson to take away from this is that the virus is still here and we can’t let our guards down. We need to continue to have precautions in place. With the [B.C. Day] long weekend coming up, that’s the message that I’m trying to convey to people.”

Dr. Mema noted the majority of these cases involved people in their 20s, and reminded them to exercise appropriate precautions this weekend: Keep social bubbles small, don’t share drinks or smokes, favour outside over inside, and keep contact information for everyone you socialize with to facilitate contact tracing later if necessary.

The province moved this week to curb similar parties from happening again, ordering owners of short-term vacation rental units, houseboats and other similar properties to store the contact information of every guest and limit any extra visitors they may invite over to five people.

Beginning this weekend, the City of Kelowna will deploy “safety education ambassadors” to popular outdoor areas such as beaches, parks and sports fields to ensure people are physically distancing. The program is expected to run through August.

On Thursday, B.C. confirmed 29 new COVID-19 cases in the province, bringing the total to date to 3,491. There are now 242 active cases, including five in hospital and two in intensive care. A total of 194 people have died from the disease in B.C., while 3,155 have recovered.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry noted the recent increase in COVID-19 cases, saying “much of the surge can be connected to Canada Day activities in and around the Central Okanagan and particularly around the city of Kelowna.”

To date, those cases have not spilled over into older or more vulnerable populations, or into health care settings, she said.

Dr. Henry thanked those who have taken COVID-19 safety messaging to heart.

“I know people around the Canada Day weekend really had the need to get together and have the joy of being together and that is what we need to do for the rest of the summer,” Dr. Henry said. “But we can do it safely, and we need to do it safely.”

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