Active COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high in B.C., with provincial health officials warning that the poor air quality plaguing much of the province can also pose serious health risks to vulnerable populations.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in a Monday news conference that B.C. recorded 317 new cases of COVID-19 over the weekend and six more deaths. The numbers cover a three-day reporting period since the last update on Friday, with 137 cases recorded between Friday and Saturday, 119 cases between Saturday and Sunday, and 61 cases between Sunday and Monday.

Five of the people who died were elderly, she said. One of the deaths happened in the Northern Health region — a first for that health region. The person who died there, a woman in her 70s, died in hospital after becoming infected with COVID-19 at a community event.

There are currently a record 1,594 cases of active COVID-19 infection in the province  — with 58 people in hospital, an increase of nine since Friday, and 16 people in critical care.

“This is the time for back to school, back to work, back to doing all we can to flatten the COVID-19 curve again. The number of new cases is placing a heavy strain on our public health teams. It is a concern for me and I know for many of us,” she said, adding that over 3,000 people are currently under public health monitoring.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the positive test rate over the last three days is 1.85 per cent, slightly below the recent average. The goal set by the World Health Organization is to keep positive test rates below five per cent, particularly when schools are reopening.

Henry commented on the current air quality in B.C., which has plummeted due to smoke from wildfires burning south of the border, warning that the same people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 can also be affected by the conditions.

“We know that the mixture that we inhale with wildfire smoke has a number of particulates in it that cause irritation to the nose and to the throat and to the lungs and particularly affects people who are very young and our elders,” said Henry.

“And we know that they are the same people who can be most adversely affected from COVID-19. We know, as well, that pregnant women can be very affected by wildfire smoke.”

Henry said that outdoor exercise is discouraged under smoky conditions, and that cloth masks, when tight-fitting, can reduce the number of particulates that are inhaled. 

She said COVID-19 and smoke irritation can have some similar symptoms, like a dry cough, runny eyes, and irritation. But symptoms like a fever and chills are unlikely to be caused by smoke inhalation.

“We can help our public health teams by doing our part with the choices that we make every day. The symptoms of COVID-19 can be very mild, particularly in young, healthy people. You may think it’s seasonal allergies, a mild cold or now, perhaps irritation from the wildfire smoke, but if you have concerns or doubts, stay away from others, get a test,” she said.

Responding to a petition by some B.C. teachers that schools be closed due to the smoky conditions, Henry said that in many cases, schools can provide a safer air environment for students.

Dix and Henry have repeatedly pleaded with British Columbians to keep their social bubbles small, keep a physical distance when out in public and wear a mask when that isn’t possible.

Dix’s latest message is to “stick to six” — choose a group of six people to socialize with and make it a consistent group.

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