Year in Review: COVID-19 in the South Okanagan

·7 min read

COVID-19 dominated the headlines in a dreadful year that turned the world upside down.

The Province of B.C. announced its first confirmed case on Jan. 28, 2020., a man in his 40s living in the Vancouver Coastal Health region who had travelled to Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the pandemic. Soon after, the number of cases climbed relatively slowly with the provincial case count reaching 32 on March 9, when the first Canadian COVID-19 related death was recorded in B.C., a resident of a care home in North Vancouver.

First case in IH, public health restrictions begin

The first case of COVID-19 in Interior Health was announced on Feb. 14, then known as a “novel coronavirus.” The first case was a woman in her 30s who lived in the Interior Health region and had travelled to Shanghai, China.

While the South Okanagan was relatively untouched by the virus in the first few months of 2020, public health orders would begin to heavily impact everyone’s way of life.

Shortly after the first provincial announcement of public health orders to stop the spread of the virus, and the term “social distancing” becoming ubiquitous, the Town of Osoyoos announced it was closing town-operated facilities including the Sun Bowl arena on March 16, and local public washrooms, dog parks and skate parks were closed shortly thereafter.

The 46th Annual Atom Fiesta minor hockey tournament in Osoyoos was cancelled in March as BC Hockey joined Hockey Canada, the KIJHL, the BCHL and professional sports leagues in taking precautionary measures.

With the total number of cases up to 53 in the province in March, Minister of Health Adrian Dix and B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry discouraged gatherings of 250 or more people, and advised against travel outside of Canada, including the U.S.

On March 17 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the closure of the Canada-U.S. border to all non-essential travel. The border has remained closed to tourism and recreation since. Schools from kindergarten to Grade 12 were closed in B.C., at the time indefinitely, on March 17.

A state of emergency was declared in the province of B.C. on March 17 which has been extended multiple times and has continued throughout 2020. The Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen (RDOS) closed facilities on March 19 and Interior Health began postponing non-urgent scheduled surgeries on March 18.

Later in March the Town of Osoyoos would activate its emergency operations centre and restaurants across the province were ordered to close dine-in services. Local businesses and tourism organizations began the long and painful process of adjusting to public health orders while continuing to operate — a struggle which continued throughout 2020 and worsened as the second wave of the virus began to rear its head.

South Okanagan and Similkameen health care professionals began seeing patients virtually in late March, as many meetings and appointments in 2020 started gradually moving online.

By March 25, there were 41 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Interior Health region and the RDOS closed playground and outdoor facilities. In late March the Town of Oliver opened its emergency operations centre and, like other local governments in the area, continued contingency planning for floods and wildfires.

Inmate tests positive, outbreak in West Kelowna

On March 28 Interior Health declared an outbreak amongst temporary foreign workers at the Bylands Nursery in West Kelowna after two individuals tested positive for COVID-19. Following a provincial health order, 63 workers were quarantined on the site.

On April 2, Interior Health confirmed an inmate at the South Okanagan Correctional Centre had tested positive for COVID-19, the first positive test in a correctional centre in B.C. The province then released three inmates from the facility who qualified following early release assessments by the province, and one inmate serving an intermittent sentence. Three staff members at the correctional centre would test positive in August and the outbreak would be declared over in September.

On April 15, the provincial health authority confirmed the first COVID-19 related death in the Interior Health region, a man in his 60s.

Cannings self-isolates

South Okanagan West-Kootenay MP Richard Cannings was in self-isolation in his Ottawa apartment in March after attending a large mining convention with over 25,000 attendees in Toronto earlier that month. Cannings was among a group of MPs and ministers, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who took the precautions after attending the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada Convention. Cannings ended up testing negative for COVID-19.

Osoyoos Times and Oliver Chronicle print last editions

The Osoyoos Times and Oliver Chronicle suspended their print editions in early April, both printing their last issues under those monikers. It marked the first time since 1947 that the Osoyoos Times did not put out a print edition. News continued online and the local newspapers would return as one print edition, the Times-Chronicle, on May 6.

COVID comes to Oliver

On July 16, as cases were rising in Kelowna following outbreaks at private parties on the Canada Day long weekend, the province confirmed the first COVID-19 outbreak in the Oliver area aside from the South Okanagan Correctional Centre. One person connected to the outbreak at an Oliver cherry farm had likely been in Kelowna according to Interior Health’s statements at the time. The outbreak only had four associated cases including local staff and temporary foreign workers who had completed a 14-day quarantine after arriving in Canada. In June, a member survey by the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association (BCFGA) suggested that more than 67 per cent of farmers had reduced fruit production as a result of uncertainties and risks created by COVID-19.

Regional District takes over Loose Bay

With the South Okanagan’s agricultural sector relying on temporary workers from Eastern Canada and abroad, many questions arose regarding safe housing and camping facilities. Often an unofficial site domestic temporary workers, the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen took over operations from the society that previously ran the facility at the Loose Bay campground at 500 Secrest Hill Rd. in May. The Ministry of Agriculture provided $60,000 in funding to coordinate COVID-19 safety precautions at the site. While there were concerns surrounding workers coming into the region and the sites that hosted them, there were no COVID-19 outbreaks or reported cases connected to the workers for the remainder of the season.

Snap election leads to NDP majority

Premier John Horgan may have made an unpopular decision to call a snap election in September, but voters ended up sticking with the NDP government which formed a majority after voters headed to the polls on Oct. 24. BC NDP candidate Roly Russell took the Boundary-Similkameen riding with nearly 50 per cent of the vote. While the Canadian Press called the riding for Russell on election night, the official tally would come weeks later due to a surge in mail-in voting. Oliver town councillor Petra Veintimilla was the runner-up in the riding with 37 per cent of the vote and Conservative candidate Darryl Seres was one of the most successful in his party with 11 per cent of the vote.

McKinney Place outbreak grips community

After nearly a year without any long-term care outbreaks in Oliver or Osoyoos, an outbreak of COVID-19 was declared on Dec. 6 at the McKinney Place long term care facility next to the South Okanagan General Hospital. As of Dec. 23, eight residents have died as a result of the outbreak. The Oliver community pulled together in support of healthcare workers, residents and their families, erecting banners of support. McKinney got a visit from Santa Claus and local residents started the #Becausewecare campaign giving gifts secret Santa-style to frontline workers in the community. Interior Health has said the age of the facility and the lack of individual rooms has led to the spread of the virus in the facility where (as of Dec. 23) 54 of the 59 residents had tested positive for COVID-19.

Dale Boyd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Times-Chronicle