B.C. businesses urged to have contingency plans to prevent Omicron spread

One in three B.C. workers could become infected with Omicron in the coming weeks. That’s the warning from Dr. Bonnie Henry, who advised businesses to come up with contingency plans. Ashley Burr reports.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant is why B.C.’s top doctor is now urging businesses to come up with contingency plans. Staffing shortages are expected as more people get sick and Dr. Bonnie Henry says health care and education is likely to be impacted.

According to Henry, about 80 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in B.C. are the highly-contagious Omicron variant, overtaking the Delta variant case count.

She says the spread of the variant slightly varies in the northern part of the province, “where it’s not quite that high yet,” but she points to data from the BC Centre for Disease Control that the spread of Omicron is spreading in a “dramatically different” way.

“The rate of transmission that we’re seeing now in British Columbia … means that at this point, most people in B.C. likely have a friend or family member or a colleague who has been infected with the Omicron variant,” Henry said Tuesday.

“Omicron has the advantage and we see that in the rapidly increasing case numbers we’re seeing here.”

With the spike of COVID-19 cases reported through December and into the new year, B.C. has implemented temporary COVID-19 restrictions. However, Henry says “we are coping.”

“Everything we do now makes a difference.”

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Getting vaccinated, receiving a booster, wearing a mask, physically distancing, and staying home when feeling unwell will all make a difference, Henry says. But she adds there are also ways the province will need to respond differently to this new strain.

“A lot of people will get sick,” Henry says.

“A lot of people have milder upper respiratory symptoms that could be very similar, at least early on, to cold or to influenza. That means that things like case and contact tracing are no longer reactionary measures that are able to work to help us contain this,” she explained. “It means that all of us have to be proactive in how we prevent ourselves from getting sick. Also how we prevent transmission to others.”

With the expectation that there will be high infection counts throughout the province, Henry says the challenge will be the number of people who call in sick.

“It means health-care workers and educators who aren’t able to go to work because they’re ill … thankfully, because of our vaccinations, that will be a mostly mild illness. But the interruption to our business continuity is something that we now need to think more carefully about.”

Henry addressed businesses in the province during the Tuesday news conference and said given the rate of transmission, the short incubation period, and the high number of people who are getting ill, “we need now all businesses to put contingency plans in place to keep businesses operating when staff are off ill.”

“We need to reactivate those COVID-19 safety plans. Those were the layers of protection specific to your business that allowed you to operate safely. We need to anticipate that as many as a third of your workforce at any one time may become ill with COVID-19 and they may not be able to come to work, and we need to adapt … So we can operate at these reduced numbers. Whether you’re a private company, a school, a frontline business or health-care site, now’s the time that we have to prepare.”

Related video: B.C. introduces more COVID restrictions ahead of holiday season

But she says she’s not interested in continuing to roll out restrictions.

“This is about activating all of those layers of protection available for your business in your situation, to keep you from having to shut down because you don’t have enough people to operate.”

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To protect employees, customers and other members of the public, Henry suggests one way to mitigate the spread is by reminding and reinforcing how to keep a safe distance from each other.

“Have fewer people in the same location at once, whether you can stagger shifts, stagger start times … making sure that staff are normally not all eating lunch in a small unventilated lunchroom together. Using those barriers, Plexiglas barriers, limiting the numbers of customers in the space at any one time,” she suggested.

“Using appropriate PPE protocols, ensure you have well-fitting comfortable three-layer masks, and having the ability to do things like washing your hands regularly. And, of course, vaccine requirements. These are important we know they’re in place in many employment opportunities, but requiring employees to declare their vaccine status so you understand the risk in your employees,” she added.

While vaccines can’t prevent people from being infected with the virus, Henry reiterated it will significantly reduce someone’s likelihood of having severe symptoms.

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