For ski resorts, spring normally marks a final chance for visitors to carve sun-drenched runs before the season ends.
But at Canada’s most famous ski resort, the gondolas have stopped, and the slopes are eerily quiet.
The village of Whistler was shut down by provincial authorities at the end of March after they realised that P1, the highly infectious coronavirus variant traced back to Brazil, was spreading rapidly throughout the community.
As provinces across Canada break records for new cases of the virus, experts have grown increasingly troubled by the rapid and covert spread of variants. With 877 confirmed cases of P1, the province of British Columbia is now the centre of the world’s largest sequenced outbreak of the variant outside Brazil – and nearly a quarter of those cases have been linked to Whistler.
P1 is believed to be a highly infectious mutation of the virus that appears to be more fatal among young people and has the ability to reinfect victims. In Brazil, the P1 variant – along with myriad policy failures – has ushered in a total collapse of the country’s healthcare system.
It has also spilled into neighbouring countries in South America.
But experts were shocked to see a large cluster in Whistler, an alpine resort in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. It remains a mystery how the variant arrived: none of the 84 people initially flagged at the beginning of the Whistler outbreak reported any travel outside Canada.
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Nora, a 22-year-old hospitality worker in Whistler, doesn’t know which version of the virus she contracted in mid-March, only that it left her with intense body pains “deep in my bones” and an overwhelming sense of fatigue that kept her bedridden for days.
Young workers like Koch have made up the vast majority of Whistler’s coronavirus cases. Health officials have tried in vain to stem three separate outbreaks since January, vaccinating many of the resort’s staff – but even that has not managed to stop new cases.
“We all kind of felt that it could happen to us,” said Peter, a resort maintenance employee who was infected with the virus just days after receiving his vaccine in mid-March. “People just come here from everywhere- that’s kind of what makes this place what it is.”
The P1 outbreak has since spread throughout the province and into neighbouring Alberta. It is suspected of infecting 21 players on Vancouver’s professional hockey team, the Canucks.
But because the province delayed in screening for variants, officials still have a murky picture of how widespread the virus is.
Jean-Paul Soucy, a PHD candidate in epidemiology and the co-founder of the Covid-19 Canada Open Data Working Group, said British Columbia lags behind other provinces in its ability to track the percentage of cases involving variants.
“It also just comes down to bad luck. But the fact that we were late in implementing enhanced quarantine measures at the border likely didn’t help either,” he said. “If those measures had been put in months earlier, maybe this could have been slowed down – or even avoided.”
Whistler’s notorious housing shortage has also probably played a role in the spread.
“Because rent is so crazy, you have people living in closets and sometimes as many as eight people sharing a place,” said Koch, who shares a flat with three other roommates.
Nora attempted to quarantine herself in her bedroom after developing symptoms, but her flatmates all became infected – including one who had already received one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“Most of us can’t do our jobs from home. We still have to go to work frontlines all the time to serve people,” she said. “It’s really hard to isolate when most people have eight other people living with them.”
Further complicating efforts to track the virus, British Columbia announced earlier this week it would no longer screen all positive Covid-19 tests for variants.
“We just assume that those screened positives will be the variants. We assume that anybody who is positive for Covid-19 needs to be treated as if they have one of these highly transmissible viruses,” Dr Bonnie Henry, the province’s health officer, told reporters.
Instead, the province will monitor for surveillance purposes and to search for possible for reinfections and vaccine failures.
But experts say screening gives a crucial insight into how a variant is spreading.
“This beast of a variant is surging from the underbelly without the sequencing to capture it. This is why I’m fearful that when they stop sequencing a lot of these cases, we’re going to miss important information – and much of the information is going to be so much more delayed,” said Eric Feigl-Ding, a Washington-based epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.
Feigl-Ding points to critical sequencing work by both UK and Danish health officials late last year, who discovered that while overall cases were dropping in their countries, the B117 variant was surging, giving the public a false sense of success.
“If they had not done all that sequencing, they would have had this kind of blissful ignorance that the epidemic was over,” he said. “If you have a more contagious variant that is driving the epidemic, you don’t want to be flying blind.”
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