VANCOUVER -- While nearly all of British Columbia is seeing a gradual drop-off in COVID-19 cases, the Interior Health Authority is seeing a surge in several communities that had almost no cases a month ago. It’s still unclear whether variants of concern, like the more-contagious Delta variant, may be involved.

The Windermere health services area, which encompasses several rural communities in the Columbia Valley, currently has the highest infection rate in the province, soaring to 30 cases per 100,000 people as of Monday; a week ago they had just nine per 100,000. The Fernie area (13 per 100,000, compared to two last week) and the South Cariboo (12 per 100,000, compared to eight last week) were neck-and-neck for second-worst communities, according to the latest information on the BC Centre for Disease Control's surveillance dashboard.

The agency’s most recent Weekly Data Summary, released late Tuesday, shows that cases rose in those communities and also Kootenay Lake from June 10-16, while most of the province saw fewer than five cases per 100,000. In contrast, neighbouring communities like Kamloops (one per 100,000) and the central Okanagan (four per 100,000) have only a handful of cases, while Merritt, Enderby, Summerland, Keremeos and Princeton have none at all.

“We are seeing an overall trend of decreasing, but it’s important to note some of these cases are in small communities where two or three cases can spike the rate – which is what we call a unstable rate,” explained Interior Health public health officer, Dr. Silvina Mema. “It's not community transmission like we were seeing before and what that means is the cases we are seeing are expected. If I went to dinner with three friends and I'm a COVID case, my three friends are expected to be COVID cases. It's not like before that we were having cases that we didn't know where they were coming from.”

While Mema doesn’t believe the Delta variant is behind the outbreaks, she also acknowledged she can’t know that for sure since whole genome sequencing of samples in the past week hasn’t been completed yet, but she reiterated the prevention measures and case management would be the same.

“It’s not widespread transmission, it’s small pockets of epi-linked cases and we’re closely monitoring those communities to see the trajectory,” she pointed out, adding that most cases are in unvaccinated residents. “Most commonly it’s household transmission, family members, or socializing outside of your household with playdates, even when following the rules of the Phase 2 of the restart. It’s not totally unexpected.”

A mayor in the Columbia Valley said the area has avoided high case counts until now but that with the spike in infections, he’s asking travellers to reconsider visiting for the time being, calling the numbers concerning.

“People are being cautious, but somewhere along the line we know COVID travels,” said Invermere Mayor Al Miller.

Addressing potential tourists in his community, the mayor said: “We want you here in time, and maybe now is not just the time – but certainly we want to enjoy a great summer together."

More than 400 shots per day are being administered in Invereme, the mayor added, and he hopes as immunization rates go up, cases will go down.

In the South Cariboo, one in four people tested for COVID have the virus, while 19 per cent of tests in Windermere came back positive; Peace River North has a 21 per cent positivity rate, which is slightly lower than the previous week.

When it comes to travelling to these areas, Mema says everyone should do a personal risk assessment to decide whether they’re susceptible, if their vaccination status has them more comfortable, or if they’d rather avoid the risk for the time being.

“We’re comfortable with the restart plan, but not everyone has the same level of comfort and just because you can travel doesn’t mean you have to travel – or go to a party,” she said. “We know that COVID-19 is not going to disappear completely, we will have background activity of COVID in the next months and the near future and we will have to continue to be vigilant to avoid outbreaks and widespread transmission events.”