Eight months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 an international pandemic, it was Cowichan Tribes that was the hardest hit in the Cowichan Valley as 2021 began.
The first cases in the First Nation were discovered on Jan. 1, and as of Jan. 11, there were at least 70 cases.
Chief and council issued a shelter-in-place order on Jan. 6 that lasted until late March.
Under the order, all members were required to stay at home.
Access to residential areas and residential buildings on reserve land were restricted, and barriers and checkpoints were set up to enforce the order and provide information.
The first shipment of COVID-19 vaccinations to Cowichan Tribes, the first vaccines to come in the Valley, arrived on Jan. 12, and members were encouraged by their leadership to get vaccinated.
But racism towards members of the First Nation increased immediately after its public disclosure in early January of the positive cases in the community, which was quickly denounced by government officials at all levels.
North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau were among those, which included members from local and senior governments, who had voiced their disgust with social media posts and behaviour towards members of Cowichan Tribes after the First Nation experienced the surge in cases.
“As you will know, I spend a fair bit of time on social media, and I’ve been extremely concerned with some of the posts I’ve been seeing in the past few days with respect to the COVID-19 outbreak among the Cowichan Tribes community,” Siebring wrote in a post on his public page on Jan. 10.
“OK… I’m beyond ‘extremely concerned.’ I’m disappointed. And I’m pissed off.”
Richard Jock, chief executive officer of the First Nations Health Authority, and Kathy MacNeil, Island Health president and chief executive officer, said in a joint letter in January that they were “deeply saddened by the racist commentary which has arisen within the community in response to the hardship being experienced by Cowichan Tribes”.
Cowichan Tribes confirmed its first death from COVID-19 on Jan. 26, and that there had been 171 cases in the community up to that time.
By early March, six members of Cowichan Tribes had died of COVID-19, and there were at least 255 cases amongst the First Nation.
By the end of March, more than 2,255 of the First Nations’ approximately 5,000 members had been vaccinated.
Currently, as the next surge of the pandemic takes hold, the First Nation is under restrictions until Jan. 31 that limit indoor personal gatherings, and has cancelled all sports tournaments while the restrictions are in place.
Many businesses in the Valley were also severely impacted by the pandemic over the year as they faced mandatory shutdowns and then severe restrictions on how many customers were allowed in the stores when they were permitted to open.
Food and liquor-serving establishments had to face a disproportionate amount of hardships as the health crisis deepened.
Many of them have been forced to close, including Cowichan Bay’s Rock Cod Café, which shut down after 15 years in business in early December.
In a video to the community, owner Jacob Hokanson said he had closed the restaurant for now because he simply can’t afford to stay open.
“To say that it has been a tough go as a restaurant owner since March, 2020 is a gross understatement,” Hokanson said in the video.
“Too many shutdowns, too many restrictions, too many policies that were slapped on us with the expectation that we would simply shoulder the costs on us fiscally, physically and emotionally, topped off with a crushing increase in costs and a diminishing labour market that would not allow us to make the kind of money in the summer that we would need to survive the winter, all followed up the sudden end of the [CERB, CERS and CEWS] programs just a little too soon.”
By early March, the first centres to distribute the long-anticipated vaccinations against COVID-19 to the general public were set up in the Valley, beginning with seniors 82 years old and up, and gradually vaccinations became more available to adults as the year progressed.
But many in the region didn’t immediately take advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated and by mid-July, Cowichan Valley West had the lowest percentage of people 12 and older with one shot on the Island, with only 70 per cent vaccinated according to the BC Centre for Disease Control.
In response, the Vancouver Island Health Authority set up a new mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinic that went to areas where there were people who had put off getting their first dose on the Island, with many stops in communities in the Cowichan Valley.
“We knew that there would come a time where we would have to go to people to vaccinate them, rather than having people come to us,” said medical health officer Dr. Mike Benusic at the time.
With 80 per cent of Island residents 12 and over having received their first dose by mid summer, Benusic said he believed most holdouts would be willing to take the first jab if it was brought closer to them.
The possible deadly consequences of not getting vaccinated came home to many in the Valley with the death of 39-year-old Josh Mellor from the disease in late September.
Mellor, a farmer with a wife and two young daughters, was well known as a man who spent his life doing everything he could to support his family and community.
He was not vaccinated and was on the fence about getting a shot when, just three months following the birth of his daughter, Mellor began feeling sick.
He tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 2 after a runny nose devolved into severe coughs and body aches.
After a brief but devastating battle against COVID’s Delta variant, Mellor died at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit on Sept. 27.
The well-wishes and support for Mellor and his family grew online on the Josh’s Fan Club Facebook page, where numbers were up to 2.6k followers by the end of September.
Since his death, Mellor’s battle with COVID-19 has prompted many within the community to get the “Jab for Josh”.
But a small group in the Cowichan Valley rejected getting vaccinated as 2021 went on, and some began organized protests in the region against the vaccinations.
One of the largest was at Cowichan District Hospital when several hundred people gathered on Sept. 1 to protest provincial health measures regarding COVID-19, specifically the vaccine card program that was just announced at the time.
People at the protest, one of many held across the province that day, held signs bearing slogans such as “No medical apartheid”, “My body my choice,” and “Freedom is the right to choose,” and the URLs of COVID conspiracy theory websites.
Island Health president Kathy MacNeil issued a statement in response to the protests, expressing concerns about how the protesters interfered with access to facilities and treated health care workers.
“I am proud my country supports the democratic right to peaceful protest,” she said.
“However, some of today’s protests disrupted safe access to health care facilities. Members of Island Health care teams were verbally abused as they came to and left work during these protests, and in at least one case a health-care team member was physically assaulted.”
The “anti-vaxxers”, as they are called by many, have held several other protests around the Valley since then and continue to do so, including in front of Duncan City Hall, at MLA Sonia Furstenau’s constituency office and at the Cowichan Valley Citizen office in Duncan.
They also received a lot of backlash from the community when they protested outside Cowichan’s Tansor Elementary School on Nov. 29.
In response to the protests, particularly ones held at hospitals and schools which were becoming more frequent in many B.C. communities, the province moved to give cabinet the authority to create protection zones around health care and other facilities that may be targeted by protesters against COVID-19 vaccine and treatment services.
The legislation protects hospitals, COVID-19 test and vaccination centres, and K-12 schools by establishing 20-metre access zones around them.
Within an access zone, it is an offence to impede access to the facility, disrupt services or act in a way that could reasonably be expected to cause service users or providers concern for their physical or mental safety.
As 2021 comes to an end, the vaccination rates in the Cowichan Valley are high compared to many other regions in B.C.
As of Dec. 6, vaccinations rates for people 12 years of age and older were 71 to 81 per cent in west Cowichan Valley, and 81 to 90 per cent in the rest of the region.
But the new COVID-19 variant, called Omicron, that is quickly spreading around the world, has health authorities and the general public increasingly worried.
COVID-19 modeller Caroline Colijn said in late December that the latest modelling suggests a “steep rise” in cases, largely because of the new variant, of about 20 to 25 per cent more a day in the province.
She said this represents a doubling time of just a few days for cases and this is a “real cause for concern.”
More public health restrictions were announced in B.C. in the days just before Christmas as the Omicron variant drove the province’s active case count into the thousands.
It appears that any light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic may be far off as we begin 2022.