David Earn: Public health decisions bring risk to Whistler

Opinion: We cannot be certain that opening Whistler-Blackcomb to unvaccinated skiers will cause an outbreak. But uncertainty is a poor excuse for inaction

David Earn 4 minute read November 26, 2021

We cannot be certain that opening Whistler-Blackcomb to unvaccinated skiers will cause an outbreak. But uncertainty is a poor excuse for inaction, writes David Earn, research chair, Faculty of Science in Mathematical Epidemiology at McMaster University. Justa Jeskova Photography Justa / Justa Jeskova

On Nov. 16, I attended a town council meeting in the Resort Municipality of Whistler. The main issue being discussed was B.C. Public Health’s decision not to force Vail Resorts (the owner of the Whistler-Blackcomb ski resort) to require proof of vaccination for skiers this winter. This has become a major issue in B.C., as one resort after another has mandated vaccine passports. More than 11,000 people have signed a petition asking B.C. Public Health to require that Vail also insist on proof of vaccination for skiers using lifts and gondolas.

As a mathematician who has been working hard to forecast the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Ontario for more than 18 months, and also as a skier who loves visiting Whistler every winter, I was keen to understand why this decision had been made. Why would B.C.’s public health leadership choose to allow Whistler-Blackcomb — one of the largest and best-known ski resorts in the world — to be the only ski resort in the province not to require vaccination?

Members of the public and the town council asked questions that conveyed deep concerns about the safety of the community, pressure on health-care workers, and potentially devastating consequences for the town’s economy if an outbreak were to be seeded by unvaccinated visitors. Present to answer these questions was Dr. John Harding, medical health officer for the Vancouver and Coast Garibaldi region. He spoke calmly and professionally, but articulated a position that left me — and many others in the room — baffled and disappointed.

The main point of discussion at the meeting was permitting unvaccinated people to ride the gondolas (the enclosed cable cars in which people are packed together for 25 minutes to get up the mountain). Dr. Harding argued that unvaccinated people should be allowed to use the gondolas without restrictions, other than the (unenforceable) requirement to wear a face mask. He expressed the strong view that there is very little risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in a gondola, and he repeatedly stated that there is negligible risk of aerosol transmission — in stark contrast to the accumulating scientific evidence and the position of Canada’s chief public health officer.

As the meeting progressed, it became clear to me that the debate was focused too narrowly. The risk to Whistler is not only that transmission might occur on a gondola, but that — because they can board the gondolas — thousands of unvaccinated skiers might come to Whistler, use the crowded restrooms and other indoor areas on the mountains, hang out in coffee shops, stores and private homes in town before and after skiing.

It is very difficult to estimate the probability that an outbreak will occur, much more difficult than forecasting the progression of an outbreak that has already started (which is hard enough). But you don’t need a mathematical model to predict that an outbreak is more likely if you allow more unvaccinated people in the resort. Nobody wants a repeat of last season, when Whistler garnered unwelcome international attention when the resort was closed after an outbreak of the P1 variant.

Dr. Harding deserves praise for his leadership role in vaccinating an exceptionally high proportion of Whistler residents last spring. However, that success could be seriously compromised by encouraging unvaccinated winter sports enthusiasts to come to Whistler this winter.

We cannot be certain that opening Whistler-Blackcomb to unvaccinated skiers will cause an outbreak. But uncertainty is a poor excuse for inaction. If an outbreak does occur in Whistler again this winter then the town will find itself in a precarious position with limited health-care infrastructure and the danger of having to close the resort in spite of high vaccination levels. I hope that uncertainty will not prevent B.C. Public Health from making a decision that protects the town and increases the comfort and enjoyment of the vast majority of Whistler skiers and vacationers who are vaccinated.

David Earn is the Faculty of Science Research Chair in Mathematical Epidemiology at McMaster University, a member of the executive committee of the M.G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research, and co-chair of the Ontario COVID-19 Modelling Consensus Table.


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