Owen Canale’s unexpected good behaviour at bedtime raised a red flag with his mother Sarah.
The eight-year-old doesn’t usually go to sleep easily at night, but on Aug. 7, Sarah found him passed out in bed earlier than usual.
Then he woke up in the middle of the night with stomach cramps and a severe headache.
“His head hurt so bad he was digging his fingers into his head,” says Sarah.
By the morning, Owen had begun vomiting. His family then took him to the emergency room at Nelson’s Kootenay Lake Hospital.
“It was just a very sad situation to see your child so weak. He couldn’t grasp my hand.”
Owen tested positive for COVID-19, one of 187 new cases in the Nelson local health area to be reported between July 1 –when the provincial government dropped restrictions on masks and gatherings – and Aug. 12.
The Nelson area, which includes Salmo and parts of the Slocan Valley, had been largely unaffected by the pandemic in 2020. At the time there were just 53 confirmed cases, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control. But that changed in April, starting with an exposure at Rosemont Elementary. In July cases surged again.
The latest spike has made Nelson a provincial centre for the pandemic, with higher weekly positive tests than in Lower Mainland communities such as Abbotsford and parts of Vancouver.
The Canales are among the Nelson residents now coping with a virus that’s rapidly spreading throughout the community.
Sarah and her husband Patrick have each had two doses of COVID-19 vaccines, but Owen and his six-year-old sister Ali are too young to receive the shots.
Owen is now recovering and Ali has tested negative, but the family is still under quarantine.
“It might not be hospitalizing them, but the repercussions of the social isolation are really taking a toll on the kids,” says Sarah.
“All his friends now are isolating. The more people who can be vaccinated in our community, maybe we can stop this outbreak.”
Ostara Toews wondered if the smoke was to blame.
For weeks, Nelson’s air had become a brown haze caused by regional wildfires. Toews, a bartender at a downtown restaurant, began coughing on July 23 but initially brushed it off as a symptom of working in an outdoor patio.
She went to work the next day, but felt worse. One day later, Toews woke up too sick to leave her home.
“I just had aches and pains. My throat felt like it was on fire. My head was throbbing. And I felt like I was kind of living in that fever dream,” she says.
Toews had been scheduled to receive her second jab that day. Instead, she tested positive for COVID-19 the day after that.
Meanwhile, a server at a nearby restaurant had also begun to cough.
Pauly Frost, 29, also thought the smoke was to blame for the hack he’d developed.
A headache and nausea followed, as well as a pain in the joints of his feet that made walking difficult. “It would come in waves,” says Frost. “It sucks the energy right out of you while you try to fight it.”
Frost, who had just received his second vaccine dose, tested positive one day after Toews. His partner had been double vaccinated for a week but also tested positive for COVID-19 with a milder case.
Stuck at home, Frost said he felt guilt about being off while his coworkers picked up the slack. Tourism is alive and well in Nelson, and there’s little to suggest a pandemic is underway during an evening walk around Baker Street patios.
Frost has since returned to work, but concerns about the health of those tourists, as well as the constant need to remind them about COVID-19 etiquette, has made him wonder if he should leave the industry after over a decade of being a server.
He also still thinks patrons should make their own decisions about wearing masks in public – Frost just hopes those decisions are smart ones.
“If you are feeling safe enough to go outside then you should probably wear the mask,” he says. “And if you don’t feel safe enough you should probably stay home.”
Toews has also returned to work, but is now using an inhaler for the first time in her life. While she knows Nelson’s businesses need summer tourism revenue, but thinks the provincial restrictions were lifted too soon.
“It’s a very ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. Businesses need to keep going,” says Toews. “We have a beautiful town that people want to come and visit, but I don’t think that it’s been conducive to helping ease those numbers.”
“I feel like I’m in Hell”
The pandemic has not just been limited to Nelson.
Forty minutes west, in Castlegar, the city has had 88 cases since July 4, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control.
Robyn Lenfesty is one of those cases. The 29-year-old was forced to spend eight days on oxygen at Trail’s Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital after catching the virus from her partner, who also tested positive.
In the hospital, Lenfesty watched nurses working double shifts and listened to other patients suffering.
“I was laying there thinking like, I feel like I’m in Hell, I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”
Lenfesty wasn’t vaccinated before she became ill. She says now she regrets that, and has signed up to get her first dose now that she’s back home.
“Honestly I just feel really grateful that it’s over. I’m going to be more careful from now on and do my best to help, being vaccinated and making sure I’m still wearing masks and socially distancing.
“I hope other people also do the same thing and things can go back to normal one day.”
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