Rallies against COVID-19 restrictions in Smithers, such as this one of approximately 60 people in downtown March 20, started early in January and became a regular feature of the second year of the pandemic. (Deb Meissner photo)

Rallies against COVID-19 restrictions in Smithers, such as this one of approximately 60 people in downtown March 20, started early in January and became a regular feature of the second year of the pandemic. (Deb Meissner photo)

Year in review: COVID dominates 2021

Separate from our traditional TOP 10 news stories, the one story that trumped all others

For the second year running, COVID-19 dominated the news.

Unlike other dominating stories, which tend to impact a significant portion of the population, the pandemic, no matter how individual people may feel about it, leaves no one unaffected.

So, once again, as we did in 2020, we are treating this story as the top story of the year separately from our Top 10 news stories.

The new year dawned under restrictions imposed by the public health officer including mandatory masks and limits on social gatherings.

In Smithers, new cases of the disease were on the rise, hitting 25 in the first full reporting week of the year, Jan. 3 – 9.

That week also saw the first of what would become regular demonstrations against public health orders and later the province’s vaccination program.

In the third week of January, that vaccination program got underway in Smithers for health care workers, residents of assisted living facilities and vulnerable people as the case count rose to 32.

By the end of January, though, new cases were down to single digits and remained so throughout February.

In March, Northern Health opened up vaccinations to the general population starting with seniors 80+ years old.

March also saw the easing of some restrictions including a return to small, in-person religious services.

Nevertheless, opposition to the restrictions was growing and a March 20 rally protesting them led to RCMP ticketing a number of organizers of the event.

New cases remained stable at the beginning of the month, but spiked again in mid-March.

Meanwhile, uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine proceeded apace. By April, Northern Health was reporting they were ahead of schedule and adjusted the age-based eligibility requirements.

At the end of April, with new cases spiking in the Lower Mainland, the province issued travel bans. The North, including Smithers, remained the exception with low transmission.

At the end of May, the local health area (LHA) surpassed 50 per cent of the population having received first doses of the vaccine.

Summer would see some semblance of relative normalcy return locally. Grads, sports and a number of cultural events, most significantly, the Bulkley Valley Exhibition returned albeit with some restrictions.

Throughout most of the summer, the Smithers LHA reported no new cases of COVID-19.

That bubble would burst hard in September, however. The first week of that month saw a huge spike of 45 new cases of the disease.

Meanwhile, B.C. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) data indicated the LHA had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the province with only 72 per cent of those aged 12 and over having received a first dose and only 62 per cent having been fully vaccinated.

By the end of September, Smithers reached an all-time high of 117 cases in one seven-day period as it became northern B.C.’s turn to lead the province in infections.

During September, with a mandate for B.C.’s vaccine passports imminently coming into effect, opposition to COVID-19 measures ramped up with several rallies drawing up to 200 people at a time.

For several weeks, the LHA led the Northwest Health Service Delivery Area. October would see a stabilization in the numbers, but also an outbreak at the Bulkley Valley District Valley District Hospital in which five patients tested positive for the virus and one died.

Nevertheless, numbers throughout the North remained relatively high leading to a new health order on Oct. 15 restricting private gatherings, curtailing bars and reducing liquor service hours and banning in-person worship.

At time, the restrictions did not apply west of Kitwanga, where numbers were lower and vaccination rates higher.

On Nov. 18, with numbers remaining relatively high, the restrictions were extended indefinitely.

In mid-December, Northern health rescinded the ban on in-person worship allowing gatherings up to 50 per cent capacity with the proviso attendees wear masks and are fully vaccinated.

On Dec. 18, just ahead of the holiday break, the B.C. public health officer issued a final order for the whole province citing a surge in a new COVID variant called Omicron.

Effective until at least December 31, the order bans New Year’s Eve parties of all sizes, requires all events are required to use the B.C. Vaccine Card to verify immunizations and restricts sports events to half-capacity.

Personal holiday gatherings were also limited to wone household plus up to 10 people.

As of Dec. 16, Smithers LHA was holding steady in single digits for new cases of COVID-19 and the fully vaccinated population aged 12 and over stood at 77 per cent.

In the Dec 30 and Jan. 6 editions, The Interior News will present our traditional year-in-review top news stories, not including COVID-19.