Fort St. John declares state of emergency

The City of Fort St. John has declared a state of local emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council held a special meeting Tuesday afternoon to make the declaration, in effect for up to seven days until March 31, and which can be extended if necessary.

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"These are unprecedented times as we find ourselves with limited tools at our disposal to be nimble and respond to unexpected circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 crisis," Mayor Lori Ackerman said.

The declaration gives the city a range of extraordinary powers, including the control of travel to or from any area of B.C. and the ability to co-ordinate emergency medical services. It does not place any further public health restrictions on residents or businesses to manage the outbreak of the virus in the province.

The present concern is the potential for a local outbreak of the COVID-19 virus caused by industry and fly-in resource workers, particularly at Site C, where there were 12 workers in self-isolation at the work camp on Tuesday.

There are no confirmed cases of the virus reported at the site, but there are fears about sick workers overwhelming the city's hospital and health care resources.

"If for some reason there was an outbreak at Site C our hospital would be inundated with patients that we could not handle … with the seven ventilators we have in the community," Coun. Trevor Bolin. "The promise that was made of this camp to not have a negative impact of the City of Fort St. John cannot be met during this."

There were nine confirmed cases of of COVID-19 reported in the Northern Health region as of March 24. There are currently three cases in the Grande Prairie region.

Ackerman said Monday that health authorities have not informed the city of any confirmed or presumptive cases in Fort St. John, and B.C. public health officials have been tight-lipped on the release of information. There are, however, many people self-isolating with symptoms or because they have returned home from travel, councillors said.

Coun. Byron Stewart and Coun. Gord Klassen opposed the emergency declaration.

Stewart, who sits on council's emergency planning committee, said it would cause too much confusion for residents and send the wrong message to those living outside the community but working here.

"The entire world is being affected," Stewart said.

"I'm uncomfortable with any messaging saying that those of you that are not residents of Fort St. John are on the outside … if there are people we can help in anyway it's the responsibility of us to do that."

Stewart said construction at Site C should stop during the pandemic.

"Site C is not a vital thing to our society. It is not an emergency service, it is not a front line service," Stewart said. "I personally would just like to see the province step in and shut it down, and send everybody home."

Ackerman said the city's residents are the priority, and that those from elsewhere in Canada would be able to use the hospital. 

But out-of-town workers who need to isolate during the pandemic should be safely sent home to do so, where they can be with family and their support systems, she said.

"Our hospital would be under extreme pressure if it had to handle any further residents from wherever in Canada that are welcome to use it," Ackerman said.

"This is not about not being compassionate, this is about ensuring the services to the community are safe and secure."

Click here to read the declaration.

Coun. Becky Grimsrud supported the declaration, and said lives could be on the line.

"At end of day, this is the only tool that we have in our toolbox right now to potentially make any difference between life and death of some of our residents," Grimsrud said.

"I will not sit back and watch our residents lives lost because of a decision we could have made."

Coun. Klassen was unsure how the city could enforce the declaration, and manage the movements and gatherings of people beyond existing public health orders.

Ackerman said the province could enact further orders to address the city's concerns, and have the city stand down from its declaration.

An emergency declaration also gives the city the ability to ration food and other supplies and prevent price gouging in a shortage, and help manage services within the community, such as the delivery of goods to vulnerable and at-risk residents. 

BC Hydro has set aside one 30-room dorm at the Site C camp for workers who need to isolate, and has another four dorms with another 120 rooms that can be used as necessary. Officials have not said whether more rooms at hotels or at its apartment block in town have also been reserved.

At a council meeting on Monday, Ackerman said BC Hydro was looking to move isolating workers into the city.

"They would like to have larger accomodations for these people who are self-isolating. Right now to self-isolate at camp they are in their one room with a washroom," Ackerman said. "To find some larger accommodations is something those people would welcome, and I get that. The problem is if the transmission starts happening in the community, there's no way of stopping that."

There are now 617 cases and 13 deaths in B.C., and more than 400 people in northern B.C. have been tested since March 13.

Fifty-nine of those infected are in acute care in hospital, and 23 of them in intensive care; another 173 people have recovered. 

BC Hydro says construction of the Site C diversion tunnels continues to meet a fall deadline, while work also carries on to realign Highway 29, build the transmission line, and clear the Peace River valley for the future reservoir. Other site security and environmental monitoring work also continues.

Hundreds of workers have been sent home since a scale-back in construction was announced on March 18, and there were 856 people at the work camp on March 24. BC Hydro has not said how many workers have been tested.

"To put that into perspective, the number of people staying in camp at this time of year, based on previous years, usually averages around 1,700," spokesman Dave Conway said.

Construction in B.C. is allowed to continue, provided no more than 50 workers are working in any one space at a time.

BC Hydro said it has minimized the potential spread of the COVID-19 on site, closing the camp gym and theatre, eliminating self serve dining stations, and postponing non-essential travel, tours, and meetings.

Some workers however have still raised worries about the tight working and living conditions on site.

This is a developing story.

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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