British Columbia targets workplace outbreaks, sets daily record of COVID-19 cases

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VANCOUVER — British Columbia launched new strategies targeting workplace outbreaks of COVID-19 and screening for its variants on Thursday as some called for more aggressive action.

The change in approach came as the province set a record for daily cases at 1,293 and reported two new deaths as part of a surging third wave of infections.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said transmission chains and outbreaks are being seen in workplaces across the province, but particularly in the Lower Mainland.

A new public health order will expedite temporary closures when three or more employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and transmission has been confirmed at the workplace, she said.

It empowers WorkSafeBC to issue the closure order for 10 days or longer and work with businesses to review and enhance their COVID-19 safety plans. In larger workplaces like construction sites, the closure may only affect one area or team.

Public health will assess whether essential workplaces like fire halls, grocery stores and pharmacies should remain open, but they will be supported in other ways, she told a news conference.

The strategy aims to avoid sector-wide closures, which Henry said are "really a blunt tool" for combating infections.

"In these ways we can keep people working safely and augment the measures already in place," she said.

The province is also shifting its screening strategy for variants of concern, although the methods for preventing transmission, such as handwashing and physical distancing, remain the same, Henry said.

Given the high prevalence of the variants, infections will no longer routinely undergo full genome sequencing for confirmation.

"We assume that anybody who is positive for COVID-19 needs to be treated as if they have one of these highly transmissible viruses," Henry said.

Whole genome sequencing will focus instead on new transmission chains or clusters to help improve outbreak management, including monitoring for reinfections, vaccine failures and so-called "escape variants" that don't respond to immunization, she said.

"We need now to shift our strategy so that we can use whole genome sequencing capacity that we have in British Columbia to do more systematic testing and sampling of all of the strains to make sure we're not missing another important one that may be arising," Henry said.

Some pushed the province on Thursday to toughen the measures it is taking to fight COVID-19.

The Green party called for a three-week shutdown that would include enforcing non-essential travel measures, moving school online for most students and providing immediate government support to temporarily close non-essential businesses.

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said in a statement that neither the current messaging nor methods are working.

"It cannot be up to individuals to deal with this crisis. We need a co-ordinated response and action from government," she said.

The vaccine rollout should target younger people and vaccination clinics should be expanded with more staffing and extended hours to administer all doses as soon as they arrive in B.C., the statement said.

Furstenau said the government loosened restrictions amid rising variant cases and failed to enforce public health orders.

"The third wave is the outcome of that inaction," she said.

The presidents of 12 local unions representing public school teachers in the Fraser Health region said they want to move to blended in-person and online learning before hundreds of thousands of high school students change learning cohorts in a few weeks.

In a statement distributed by the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, they also called for masks to be mandated for students in kindergarten to Grade 3 and for information about when more teachers will be vaccinated.

Henry said the essential worker vaccination program has been delayed longer than expected as more information is still forthcoming about risks associated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

But she said some of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have already been diverted to teachers in Surrey, which has high rates of infection.

Since the pandemic began, there have been a total of 108,278 cases in COVID-19 and 1,493 deaths. There are 9,184 active cases, including 336 people in hospital, 101 of whom are in critical care.

There have been 995,001 vaccine doses delivered in B.C.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2021.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press