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Category "Local News"

21Mar

COVID-19: Ministers announce supports for people struggling and poor

by admin

He said they are working closely with about 2,000 agencies and non-profits delivering social services to make sure they have what the need to operate through the pandemic.

The B.C. government will use a “crisis supplement model” to support people in income and disability assistance, and is reducing bureaucracy that slows down the delivery of services, Simpson said.

He said they are also forming a plan for assistance cheque-issue day next week. Drug overdoses and deaths spike on the last Wednesday of each month.

“We know this is a challenging time for all British Columbians,” Simpson said.

“It’s a challenging time around the anxiety that’s created by this virus, and the anxiousness, and that is even more challenging for people who are living vulnerable. For people who are poor, people with disabilities, people who are on the street, the homeless, it’s an extremely challenging time for that population in particular.”

11Mar

COVID-19: Health officials confirm 7 new cases, bringing B.C. total to 46

by admin

Health officials in B.C. confirmed seven more COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, including the first case on Vancouver Island.

It brings the total cases in the province to 46, up from 39 on Wednesday, when health officials announced the same number of new cases.

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, urged British Columbians to come together in this fight …  by keeping their distance from one another.

We must all step up our social distancing,” she said at her daily briefing. “This is not forever. This is for the coming weeks … where we know we have to do everything we can to protect those people who are more likely to have severe illness, and particularly our seniors and elders.”

A day after she noted that health officials were seeing more cases coming from Egypt, the epidemiologist confirmed three new cases among travellers who had been in Egypt.

One, a man in his 60s in the Island Health region, is the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Vancouver Island.

“I want to assure all Victoria residents and visitors that we are taking this issue seriously and are in communication with provincial health officials regarding standards and protocols,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, in a statement.

Another new case, a man in his 70s in Coastal Health region, returned to B.C. from Egypt with the same travel group. Henry said he is also related to the infected traveller reported on Tuesday.

The third travel-related case is a person in his 70s who lives in Egypt and is visiting family in the Fraser Health region. His family is also in quarantine.

“Egypt is clearly something we’ve been watching,” Henry said at her daily briefing. “Were hearing that from around the world, that Egypt is now a source of exported cases.”

Two are health care workers at the Lynn Valley Care Centre — a male in his 20s who lives in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and a woman in her 50 in the Fraser Health region. Both are recovering in isolation at home. That brings the total to six sick care workers from the home.

There are no new cases among seniors at the care home, however. One person remains ill, while the other became B.C.’s first COVID-19 fatality, on Sunday.

“Things have settled and are still being monitored very closely at the care centre,” said Henry.

Henry also announced two new cases of suspected community transmission in the Fraser Health region: A woman in her 60s who has been hospitalized, and a man in his 60s, who is now in isolation at home.

Two individuals receiving acute care have been discharged from hospital — a man in his 90s and a woman in her 60s who contracted the virus on the Grand Princess cruise. This brings the total of recovered cases in B.C. to four.

Henry pushed back against a fatalistic approach to the spread of the disease.

“It’s not inevitable that everybody is going to be infected with this,” she said. “It’s not inevitable that our systems will be overwhelmed. We do not have to be in that position.”

Asked about closures at several schools in Metro Vancouver and in Greater Victoria, Henry said those schools made these decisions on their own.

“There has been no school that has been closed based on public health advice.”

With more than 100,000 people sickened around the world, including more than 100 in Canada and the expectation of more, the World Health Organization called on countries to mitigate the social and economic impacts while minimizing the disruption to everyday life.

But this is easier said than done. On Wednesday, disruption to everyday life continued apace.

In Italy, where COVID-19 cases has exceeded 12,000 and deaths are approaching 900, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte heightened containment efforts by ordering all businesses except grocery stores and pharmacies to close nationwide.

In nearby Washington, where the Department of Health has confirmed 330 cases, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on gatherings and events of more than 250 people in Seattle and its surrounding areas.

“This is an unprecedented public health situation and we can’t wait until we’re in the middle of it to slow it down,” Inslee said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’ve got to get ahead of the curve. One main defense is to reduce the interaction of people in our lives.”

Henry stopped short of calling for a similar ban on mass gatherings in Vancouver.

“We are obviously very mindful of the community transmission, both here and in Washington state,” she said. “We’re still taking the risk assessment approach for some of these events. But that may change.”

Mass gatherings and spectator events all over the world have been cancelled or postponed in recent days, from the TED conference in Vancouver to major music festivals like Coachella and SXSW.

The Overwatch League, which draws esports players from around the world, has cancelled all matches through March and April.

In Canada, the World Figure Skating Championships set for next week in Montreal were cancelled, just days after the Women’s World Hockey Championships in Nova Scotia were called off.

The women’s world curling championship, set to begin Saturday in Prince George, will go ahead as planned.

Other spectator events have merely cancelled spectators.

The Columbus Blue Jackets became the first NHL to announce that home games will be played without fans, heeding the advice of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. Other teams are expected to do the same.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday that the March Madness tournament will be played without fans, and even American TV talk shows like Live With Kelly and Ryan and The View filmed Wednesday without studio audiences.

with files from The Canadian Press

hmooney@postmedia.com


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11Mar

COVID-19: Health officials confirm 7 new cases, bringing B.C. total to 46

by admin


Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry responds to questions during a news conference about the provincial response to the coronavirus in Vancouver.


DARRYL DYCK / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Seven more people are sick with COVID-19 in B.C., health officials announced on Wednesday.

It brings the total cases in the province to 46, up from 39 on Wednesday, when health officials announced the same number of new cases.

Two are health care workers at the Lynn Valley Care Centre — a male in his 20s who lives in the Vancouver Coastal Health region and a woman in her 50 in the Fraser Health region. Both are recovering in isolation at home.

Three new cases are travellers coming from Egypt. Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, noted Tuesday that health officials were seeing more cases coming from Egypt.

Henry also announced two new community cases in the Fraser Health region. A woman in her 60s has been hospitalized. A man in his 60s is in isolation at home.

The federal government rolled out a $1-billion package Wednesday to help the country’s health-care system and economy cope with what the The World Health Organization has now declared a pandemic.

Multiple health authorities reported a flurry of new positive tests for COVID-19, including one person at Canadian Forces Base Trenton repatriated from a cruise ship docked in California, and a man in Sudbury, Ont., who attended a large mining conference in Toronto.

With more than 100,000 people sickened around the world, including more than 100 in Canada and the expectation of more, the WHO called on countries to mitigate the social and economic impacts while minimizing the disruption to everyday life.

But this is easier said than done. On Wednesday, disruption to everyday life continued apace.

In Italy, where COVID-19 cases has exceeded 12,000 and deaths are approaching 900, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte heightened containment efforts by ordering all businesses except grocery stores and pharmacies to close nationwide.

In nearby Washington, where the Department of Health has confirmed 330 cases, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on gatherings and events of more than 250 people in Seattle and its surrounding areas.

“This is an unprecedented public health situation and we can’t wait until we’re in the middle of it to slow it down,” Inslee said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’ve got to get ahead of the curve. One main defense is to reduce the interaction of people in our lives.”

Mass gatherings and spectator events all over the world have been cancelled or postponed in recent days, from the TED conference in Vancouver to major music festivals like Coachella and SXSW.

The Overwatch League, which draws esports players from around the world, has cancelled all matches through March and April.

In Canada, the World Figure Skating Championships set for next week in Montreal were cancelled, just days after the Women’s World Hockey Championships in Nova Scotia were called off.

The women’s world curling championship, set to begin Saturday in Prince George, will go ahead as planned.

Other spectator events have merely cancelled spectators.

The Columbus Blue Jackets became the first NHL to announce that home games will be played without fans, heeding the advice of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. Other teams are expected to do the same.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said Wednesday that the March Madness tournament will be played without fans, and even American TV talk shows like “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The View” began filming Wednesday without studio audiences.

Trudeau said Canada’s government is considering more measures to contain COVID-19, such as what to do with incoming cruise ships, on which the disease has been known to spread.

He said Canada has been fortunate so far but warned cases could climb. He demurred on when the government would opt for stricter measures like community-wide lockdowns, such as those in China and Italy.

“It’s not about time. It’s about the situation and the facts on the ground. We will closely monitor what is needed to be done to keep Canadians safe,” Trudeau said, flanked by key ministers and Canada’s chief public health officer.

“While we are prepared for a wide range of scenarios, we will focus right now on what needs to be done now and endeavour to make sure that is enough, that we don’t have to take future steps.”

Health Minister Patty Hajdu says the government expects between 30 and 70 per cent of Canadians could be infected by the novel coronavirus if the global pandemic reaches widespread transmission in Canada.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says of those who become sick, about six per cent would likely need intensive care based on the experience of other countries.

with files from The Canadian Press

hmooney@postmedia.com


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11Mar

Better protections needed for health-care workers during COVID-19: advocates

by admin

Canada’s first death from the novel coronavirus has highlighted the urgent and often ignored need for better staffing at long-term care facilities where elderly residents are especially vulnerable to the disease, says the head of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions.

Linda Silas said the need has become “top of mind” following the death on Sunday of a man in his 80s at a care home in North Vancouver, where another patient has contracted COVID-19. One of four care aides who contracted the illness there is in hospital and two relatives of another are also been sick.

Discussions about preparedness were focused on emergency rooms, critical care and public health units, she said.

“A week ago we were talking about ‘Is the acute-care sector ready?’” Silas said. “Everyone’s now talking about, ‘What about long-term care?’ ”

More infections of health-care workers leading to 14 days of quarantine would mean greater staff shortages that could leave frail patients, who often have chronic illnesses, at higher risk, Silas said, adding staffing levels are already affected by outbreaks of seasonal influenza.

“When it hits a long-term care facility, it’s always more of a crisis than if it hits even your community or hospital. We’ve always known it’s a fragile population with any kind of illness and this is one of those where we have to pay particular attention,” she said of COVID-19.

Silas said the federation has recommended 4.5 hours of care by registered and licensed practical nurses a day, for each resident in long-term care facilities in Canada.

The actual level of nursing is about three hours, with some provinces, including Ontario and New Brunswick, among the worst as few nurses choose to work in long-term care jobs, she said.

As well, there are shortages of care aides, also called personal support workers, which adds more stress to a challenging work environment, said Silas.

“The working conditions are very difficult. You’re working short all the time, you’re never guaranteed registered nurses and often your only option is to send your patient to the hospital when often it’s not what they need and what’s best for them,” she said.

“And your personal care workers are not often permanent employees. They work casual or part time and they work in different facilities so there’s always a turnover.”

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, said less than 50 per cent of staff in long-term care homes work in just one facility and support workers are also employed in multiple facilities.

“Some of them work in three places,” she said, adding a government directive during the SARS crisis in 2003 required nurses to work in only one facility to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said after announcing the death this week that an infected care aide from the same facility is believed to have worked at two other facilities.

“We know that whether it’s care workers or nurses, even physicians, we work in many different health authorities, many different facilities sometimes. That is part of the ongoing investigation at the Lynn Valley care home, to find out exactly where everybody worked and make sure that the other facilities are investigated.”

Silas said a big concern is the lack of employment insurance sick leave benefits for some support workers compared with nurses.

Business and other labour groups have urged the federal government to ease access to such benefits, which the government appears open to doing, along with tax credits and other breaks as part of the federal response.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said the government was looking at taking some steps to help affected workers and the health-care system.

Jennifer Whiteside, spokeswoman for the Hospital Employees’ Union, said care aides in British Columbia work in a “fragmented” system, with some in part-time and casual jobs at various facilities run by either private contractors or health authorities.

Sick leave benefits may be as few as five to seven sick days a year versus 18 days offered by health authorities, Whiteside said, adding aides having to go into quarantine could face financial hardship because of their lower pay levels.

“Their sick leave will be wiped out. They won’t even have enough to cover one period of self (quarantine) should that become necessary and certainly not enough to cover them should they actually become sick ),” she said.

“If a large number get sick then we’ll be having some challenges. There’s no question that a situation like this does really bring into sharp relief some of the challenges we have in the system around how we manage the care-aide labour force.”

Isobel Mackenzie, advocate for seniors in British Columbia, said the job of care aides has long been undervalued and the novel coronavirus may create awareness about the need for change.

“I think what this is going to highlight, and this is a conversation for after we’ve dealt with the crisis, is the different ways in which these care homes are staffed. We need all licensed care homes to be doing things exactly the same under the direction of the officer of the public health officer,” she said.

“How are we going to deal with the fact that some people are going to get paid while they’re off sick and some people aren’t? How are we going to handle the fact that they are working potentially for multiple employers?”

The issue of care aides who travel to various private homes must also be considered for the safety of the wider community, Mackenzie said.

“That’s where we’re going to have to be ever vigilant around monitoring and managing the situation,” she said. “(They) may be providing (seniors) with their medications that they absolutely need and if we don’t go there they aren’t going to get their medications.”

10Mar

B.C. plans for worst on COVID-19: John Horgan

by admin


B.C. Premier John Horgan


Jason Payne / Postmedia News Files

B.C. Premier John Horgan says the provincial government is preparing for the worst on COVID-19.

Horgan says public health institutions are well placed to cope with the novel coronavirus, having learned lessons from the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

He told the Surrey Board of Trade today that the virus will affect the economy in the short-term.

With an open economy and a diverse population, Horgan says the number of cases of COVID-19 in the province is not surprising.

The province has 32 cases and has reported one death.

Anita Huberman, chief executive officer of the Surrey Board of Trade, says all levels of government should include businesses in their planning processes.

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9Mar

Insurers may not pay if you go to coronavirus hot spots

by admin


People watch embarkation preparations being made aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship carrying passengers who have tested positive for coronavirus docked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, California.


KATE MUNSCH / REUTERS

If you are tempted to take advantage of a cheap flight to COVID-19 hot spots such as Italy or China, you could be paying your own hospital bills if you get sick.

Pacific Blue Cross is warning its clients that that will not be covered for medical expenses related to infectious disease if a travel advisory or health warning for your destination is issued by the Canadian government and publicized before your departure date.

The company advises members to check for government health advisories for their destination.

“If you have or want to purchase travel medical or trip protection insurance or if you are covered under a group travel medical plan, you should be aware of your coverage before you travel,” the company said in a statement.

Canada has issued Level 3 travel advisories for China, Iran and northern Italy to “avoid non-essential travel.” Travelling to a country under a Level 3 or 4 warning typically voids your coverage for medical expenses.

In practice, that means that your medical claims will be honoured as long as there is no Level 3 or 4 advisory for your destination on the effective date of your medical coverage, travel industry insiders say.

A Level 1 travel advisory means exercise normal security precautions, Level 2 advises a high degree of caution. Level 3 advises avoiding non-essential travel, while Level 4 advises Canadians to avoid all travel to the affected region.

Level 1 health notices have been issued for Singapore and Hong Kong, and Level 2 notices are in force for South Korea and Japan.

Confirm the exact terms of your health care and travel coverage with your insurer, as there is considerable variability among companies and policies are changing almost daily in response to the growing crisis.

Canada Life Financial “will continue to assess” claims related to COVID-19, including those that occur during travel to a country with a travel advisory warning.

The company has expedited disability claims related to COVID-19 and is also considering claims from people under quarantine at the direction of a physician, a company official said.

BCAA also will not provide trip cancellation or trip interruption coverage on claims related to COVID-19 on policies purchased after March 5. TuGo will not provide coverage for claims related to COVID-19 on policies purchased on or after March 4.

The Public Health Agency of Canada and Canada’s chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, have also recommended that people “avoid all cruise ship travel.”

Canadians who take a cruise against that advice may not be able to return home on a government-organized repatriation flight, or may have to pay the cost of returning should they become ensnared in a quarantine, the agency said.

If the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is detected on your ship, you could be subject to quarantine aboard the ship or in a foreign country under local rules. Your access to consular services may also be limited by local authorities.

Ports in India, Malaysia, Doha, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates have banned cruise ships outright, while many other countries have banned passengers from China, Iran, Italy and Korea from disembarking.

The cruise warning is not a Level 3 advisory, so there are no insurance implications, yet. It’s effect has been devastating, nonetheless.

“That advisory is the single biggest blow to the industry since this virus became headline news,” said travel agent Claire Newell. “I was surprised because there are hundreds and hundreds of ships in regions that haven’t been affected.”

The onslaught of holiday cancellations has triggered an overhaul of the insurance products being offered to travellers, many of them temporary offers.

“A lot of package tour operators are offering worry-free clauses in their cancellation policies,” she said.  “The industry has been hit very hard and they are trying to spur bookings because people are afraid.”

However, the cancellation windows vary from 30 days before departure to as little as 48 hours. Most allow you to rebook free, but do not offer refunds.

Discounts of up to 75 per cent are available for people willing to book a cruise.

“That’s what is going to get people over their fear, a hell of a good deal,” she said, adding that more than 90 per cent of people who are booking a holiday also buy cancel-for-any-reason insurance.

The COVID-19 epidemic is fuelling demand for “self-driving” holidays and Canadian destinations such as Niagara and the Gaspé, as well as destinations such as Iceland, Scotland and South America, where only a handful of cases are confirmed.

“There is a lot of interest in Peru, which is a great bucket list destination,” said Newell.

rshore@postmedia.com

 

9Mar

Daphne Bramham: Canada’s other public health crisis also needs urgent attention

by admin

There is a very real and deadly health crisis in B.C. from which two people died yesterday and two more will likely die today, tomorrow and the days after that.

It’s not COVID-19, and no news conference was hastily called to talk about it.

Most of those dead and dying are blue-collar guys in what should be the prime of their lives.

This is the reality as B.C. lurches into the fifth year of an opioid overdose crisis. It’s a seemingly unending emergency that by the end of 2019 had already killed 5,539 people here and more than 13,900 across Canada.

Five years in, this crisis has become normalized, with the only certainty as we face another day is that first responders are now better at resuscitating victims because, year over year, the calls have only continued to increase.

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed his top ministers to a committee tasked with responding to the COVID-19 crisis. At that point, Canada had only 30 confirmed cases. Of the 21 B.C. cases, four of the patients have fully recovered.

Not to belittle the concerns about COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, but with nearly 14,000 dead already, no committee — high-level or otherwise — has yet been struck to devise a national addictions strategy that would deal not only with opioids, but also the biggest killer, which is alcohol. A 2019 report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that 10 Canadians die every day from substance use, and three-quarters of those deaths are alcohol-related.

During the 2019 election, the issue flared briefly after Conservatives placed ads — mainly through ethnic media — claiming that Trudeau’s Liberals planned to legalize all drugs, including heroin.

Already beleaguered, Trudeau not only denied it, he quickly disavowed the resolution overwhelmingly passed at the party’s 2018 convention that called on the Canadian government to treat addiction as a health issue, expand treatment and harm reduction services, and decriminalize personal-use possession of all drugs, with people diverted away from the criminal courts and into treatment.

Trudeau disavowed it again this week when a Liberal backbencher’s private member’s bill was put on the order paper.


Liberal member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (in front) pictured in 2018.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Depending on how you read Bill C-236, it’s either calling for decriminalization or legalization. Regardless, the fact that Nathaniel Erskine-Smith’s bill will be debated at least gets it on the political agenda because unless there are some major changes, Canadians are going to continue dying at these unacceptably high rates that have already caused the national life expectancy to drop.

Erskine-Smith, an Ontario MP from the Beaches-East York riding, favours a Portugal-style plan of which decriminalization plays only a small part.

But parliamentary rules forbid private member’s bills from committing the government to any new spending, so he said his bill could only narrowly focus on decriminalization.

The slim bill says charges could be laid “only if … the individual cannot be adequately dealt with by a warning or referral (to a program agency or service provider) … or by way of alternative measures.”

Erskine-Smith disagreed with the suggestion that it gives too much discretionary power to police — especially since in B.C., it’s prosecutors, not police, who determine whether charges are laid.

Still, what he proposes is quite different from what happens in Portugal.

There, police have no discretionary power. People found with illicit drugs are arrested and taken to the police station where the drugs are weighed, and the person is either charged with possession and sent to court or diverted to the Commission for the Dissuasion of Drug Use to meet with social workers, therapists and addictions specialists who map out a plan.

Since private members’ bills rarely pass, Erskine-Smith doesn’t hold out much hope for his.

It created a firestorm on social media, with some recovery advocates pitted against advocates for harm reduction, including full legalization.

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Federal Conservatives also repeated their trope that drug legalization is part of Trudeau’s secret agenda.

Meanwhile, Alberta’s United Conservative government inflamed some harm-reduction advocates with the release of a report on the adverse social and economic impacts of safe consumption sites, even though it didn’t recommend shutting them down.

The report acknowledged that they play an important role in a continuum of care, but it also called for beefed-up enforcement to lessen the chaos that often surrounds them.

The committee questioned some data provided to them that suggested Lethbridge — population 92,730 — may be the world’s most-used injection site.

The committee also questioned why some operators report all adverse events, including non-life-threatening ones as overdoses, leaving the impression that without the sites “thousands of people would have fatally overdosed.”

Among its recommendations are better data collection using standardized definitions as well as better tracking of users to determine whether they are being referred to other services.

More than a year ago, Canadians overwhelmingly told the Angus Reid Institute that they supported mandatory treatment for opioid addiction.

Nearly half said they were willing to consider decriminalization. Nearly half also said that neither Ottawa nor the provinces were doing enough to ease the epidemic.

It seems Canadians are eager for change even if they’re not yet certain what it should look like. The only ones who seem reluctant are the politicians.

dbramham@postmedia.com

twitter.com/bramham_daphne

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6Mar

‘Blindsided’: B.C. condo residents fearful, as extent of insurance crisis remains unclear

by admin

In B.C., 1.5 million people, almost one in three, live in strata condos and townhouses, And many of which have been hit by skyrocketing insurance rates that have left residents in financial distress and worried about their futures.

“It is very disturbing and it is gut-wrenching. It is a grave concern for a lot of people,” said Jacqueline de Vooght, whose well-maintained Kelowna complex faces increases of more than 400 per cent for both its insurance premiums and water-damage deductibles.

“This must stop. … People are scared.”


Jacqueline de Vooght in front of her Kelowna strata building, which is facing a massive increase in insurance premiums and water-damage deductible. “People are scared,” she said.

Since Postmedia started reporting on this crisis last month, dozens of readers have shared horror stories of massive rate hikes (regardless of whether their buildings are old or new, or well-maintained), staggering increases in deductibles, insurance companies refusing to renew some policies or offering only partial replacement value.

Some unit owners worry they won’t be able to renew mortgages without proper building insurance while others can’t afford hundreds of extra dollars a month in strata fees. Renters worry increases will be passed on to them or that their landlords will simply sell, forcing them to move.

Many are angry that working families who bought into stratas because they couldn’t afford more expensive single-family homes now find themselves helpless in this newest crisis to hit B.C.’s housing market.

Dozens of interviews this week make it clear that although government and regulators are trying to find solutions, they have only just started gathering the necessary information to try to understand what is happening — so no quick fix is on the horizon.

And that means the situation is expected to get far worse before it gets better for B.C.’s 35,000 strata corporations and their occupants, who include just about every segment of society: Families, seniors, immigrants, renters, people on fixed incomes and high-earners in luxury towers.

That is of no comfort to residents like Asifa Lalji, who had to quit her public relations job two years ago when her muscular dystrophy worsened and now lives on disability assistance. Insurance rate hikes for her New Westminster condo building mean her strata fees will increase about $200 a month, which is tough to absorb if your budget is already stretched.

“There are seniors here that are on fixed incomes, low-income families that are going paycheque to paycheque, and people like me with disabilities. … You don’t want to be depleting all your savings and building up your debt just to live day-to-day, which is what is happening,” she said.

“And we’ve been told by the insurance companies that this is going to continue for at least another year.”

Lalji started an online petition that has already gathered nearly 8,700 signatures. She wants the provincial government to come up with “short-term and long-term changes that will protect the strata owner and renter from unfair increases and unfair liability.”


Asifa Lalji, a New Westminster condo owner who is facing unaffordable insurance rate increases.

Finance Minister Carole James said that her government is “working hard” to have some short-term ideas in the next month, but even those are unlikely to offer relief to someone like Lalji.

“This is a very complex issue. There aren’t simple solutions,” James said.

“We are gathering the data we need for long-term solutions. We are looking at how we can address the short-term pressures that people are facing. There isn’t a quick fix here, but I certainly am committed to making sure we are doing everything we can.”

James listed some options being considered by government to try to get companies to offer lower rates, although she made it clear they have not committed to pursuing any of them yet. These include closing a loophole that allows stratas to defer depreciation reports, requiring buildings to take measures to lower the risk of water damage, and more education for strata councils, which are comprised of owners who don’t necessarily have in-depth knowledge about maintenance or insurance.

Postmedia asked James about other ideas, including capping insurance rate hikes, making it mandatory for condo owners to have additional insurance to cover their own units, and government-operated housing insurance, similar to ICBC for cars. James said nothing was being ruled out as the government continues to investigate.

James said this issue wasn’t on the government’s radar until late last fall, about the time stratas started receiving renewal notices from their insurers. At this point, she does not even know how many stratas are being affected, and noted that condo owners without rate hikes are worried about what will happen to their buildings in the future.

“The magnitude of the problem still has to be determined,” she said.

Because home insurance is in the private sector, James said, government has not kept figures on rate hikes for condos. But she has asked the information be gathered now by the new Crown agency that regulates insurance, the B.C. Financial Services Authority, which replaced the Financial Institutions Commission.

So, well into a crisis, the Financial Services Authority is essentially starting at square 1 to gather information on how widespread rate hikes are, the average increases across the province, and why this is happening now.

The authority is determining how many of the 300 insurance companies in B.C. provide strata insurance, and how many have stopped offering policies to condos and townhouses, said its deputy superintendent, Frank Chong. It is also collecting at least two years of data on every policy’s value, location, number of units, type of units, construction type, age of building, commissions paid to brokers, and deductibles for earthquake, sewer and water damage.

Chong, who noted his agency’s role is to “make sure that consumers are being treated fairly,” hopes to have a partial picture by the end of March, and a complete picture by the end of April.

“We recognize the significance of how important of an issue this is to people and the concern and uncertainty it is really causing right now,“ he said.

“There is overall recognition among various stakeholders, the (authority) included, that this will remain an issue going forward. So we will devote resources here to understanding how this issue has played out and how it will play out over the coming weeks and months.”

The data, Chong hopes, will explain why insurers feel the strata market has become an unprofitable one for them.

Even at the national level, the Canadian Council of Insurance Regulators, an umbrella organization for regulators in each province, has not taken action on this issue. Its members will meet in early April to discuss whether rate hikes are occurring in other provinces and to suggest possible responses, said the council’s policy manager, Tony Toy.

Toy, who is also with the Ontario regulator, said he is aware of only B.C. and Alberta raising concerns. Chong, also a member of the national council, said he has heard of similar concerns, but to a lesser extent, in Manitoba and Quebec.

It’s not clear, though, why B.C.’s neighbours to the south aren’t reporting similar cost increases, including in the hot real estate market of Seattle.

“We’re not hearing from our consumers about this issue,” said Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. “According to our actuaries who review the filings … they haven’t seen a slew of big increases for condos.”

Some buildings struggle to get insurance

The steep increases in B.C. are a big enough problem for condo owners. But for Michel Proulx, there is an even bigger problem keeping him up at night.

Last month, HUB International, a massive American insurance brokerage, notified the strata council at Proulx’s Port Coquitlam building that its insurance would expire on Friday, March 6, due to “reducing market capacity.” Following negotiations with the strata, HUB came back this week to say it found enough insurers to cover 67 per cent of the replacement costs of the building, but not the 100 per cent required under B.C.’s Strata Property Act.

Proulx, a retired banker, is concerned not only about the financial risk but also the legal issues of not having sufficient insurance — people may not be able to renew mortgages and selling units may become impossible.

Proulx, who said his large complex is well-maintained and he is not aware of major recent claims, urged the government to step in quickly before many unit owners face financial ruin.

Owners in his building are facing strata fees increases of roughly $200 a month, he said. “We can swing it, but there are a lot of young families in our development for whom it could be pretty tight with mortgage payments.”

Why is this happening?

There are several confusing elements in this crisis, such as why the insurance hikes appear to be hitting British Columbia the hardest and why — so far — single-family homes seem to be immune.

We went in search of answers from several places, including HUB International.

“The class has been unprofitable for most insurers over the past few years due to … rising claims costs and frequency,” said Sarah Thompson, HUB’s chief marketing officer in B.C. “Poorly constructed new buildings and the lack of preventative maintenance in older buildings has driven higher frequency and severity of water claims.”

Other factors include buildings being constructed too close together “without municipalities investing in improving fire protection,” the increase in reconstruction costs, the rise in severe weather in Canada and globally, and some insurers have left the industry or reduced the amount they will cover, which has led to increased premiums and higher deductibles “to attract insurers” to stay in the market, Thompson said.

When asked about examples like Proulx’s building, which could not get a renewal to cover 100 per cent of replacement costs, Thompson said the broker approaches more than 40 insurers to try to find full coverage for clients. “Unfortunately, given the current market conditions, full replacement cost coverage is not always achievable,” she said in an email.

Condo insurance increases are happening in other areas of Canada, she said, but B.C. has an extra challenge because it is in an earthquake-prone area.


B.C. Finance Minister Carole James, left, walks by Vancouver condo towers in June 2019 with Federal Minister of Finance Bill Morneau.

James, the finance minister, insists increases are happening across Canada, including in Ontario. But she notes the high price of labour and materials makes replacement costs for damaged buildings higher in B.C. than in other provinces. Another move B.C.’s government is considering is improving transparency so that unit owners would be given more notice about rate hikes and better understand why costs are increasing.

James stopped short, though, of endorsing a recommendation that stemmed from an interim report released during Australia’s three-year royal commission into out-of-control insurance rates in the northern half of the country: It urged the government to develop a national home insurance comparison website to allow consumers to compare policies.

The report from Australia notes that in the northern half of the country, which has had a series of expensive insurance claims, residents are anxious about the steep rise in rates and “fear devastation if disaster hits” and they are uninsured or underinsured.

“We have observed an unusual competitive dynamic, with insurers in northern Australia not necessarily motivated to compete on price for market share,” the report says. “Instead we have seen them increasing prices to manage their exposure in a region they perceive to be risky or volatile. This is exacerbating affordability concerns.”

Queensland resident Margaret Shaw has been advocating change since 2011, but said some stratas simply can’t find insurance. Laws have been changed to allow some buildings to have only partial replacement value insurance because that is all they can find. Yet one complex with previous flood damage had its insurance increase to $425,000 a year from $92,000.

“Home and contents and rural (insurance) seem to have stabilized. Commercial and business is getting worse. And strata, well — strata is well and truly stuffed,” Shaw said in an email. “I hate to tell you, the situation will only get worse, with no solution available at the moment.”

Industry representatives offer explanations, recommendations

The Insurance Brokers Association of B.C. released a set of proposed legislative reforms last month, and weeks later the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the lobbying association for the country’s insurers, released its own recommendations. Both organizations, along with the opposition B.C. Liberals, want the Strata Property Act amended to clearly define a standard unit to determine what strata lot owners are responsible for and what the strata corporation is responsible for.

That move could help alleviate confusion and reduce the number of claims filed by stratas, said Rob de Pruis, IBC director of consumer and industry relations for Western Canada. He, like the government, does not have figures on how many insurers have exited this market.

Despite many headlines and the opposition Liberals providing examples of 300- or 400-per-cent condo insurance cost hikes, he argued the reality is closer to “an average of 30 to 35 per cent.” But conceded that information is “more anecdotal.”

De Pruis said insurance companies are being hit by “a whole bunch of market conditions” such as increasing frequency and severity of claims filed by stratas and climate-related disasters across the globe, including hurricanes in the U.S. and wildfires in Australia.

“It’s hard to translate to say the California wildfires are causing your condo premium in Vancouver to go up, it’s not a direct correlation. But that’s just another compounding factor,” he said. “We just seem to have a lot of economic and regional factors that are converging all at once that are impacting, certainly, many strata corporations.”


Tony Gioventu is the executive director of the Condominium Homeowners Association. He is pictured in New Westminster in 2014.

Condo owners ‘blindsided’

Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C., worries some policy proposals being advanced by the insurance industry may not result in lower rates for consumers.

“Are we just throwing the industry more of a financial benefit and we’re not getting anything in return? In which case, it’s the consumer who pays the price for it,” he said.

This week, Gioventu heard from residents of a Surrey condo tower, which has had several insurance claims, that their premiums are increasing 600 per cent. It will double the cost of monthly strata fees from an average of $350 a unit to $700. Deductibles have jumped to $750,000, Gioventu said, which raises the question: “Why bother to insure at all?”

High-risk buildings tend to be condo towers that are more than 25 years old and any buildings with a history of claims or maintenance problems, even low-rise townhouses, said Gioventu. Luxury buildings, even new ones, are also high-risk, he said, because the high-end finishings mean high replacement costs.

Gioventu, who has been in his role since 1998, said the recent insurance hikes hitting some of B.C.’s 900,000 condo units represent probably the biggest challenge his organization has faced since the leaky condo crisis of the late 1990s.

“This condo insurance thing has totally blindsided everyone. No one saw it coming,” Gioventu said. “It’s going to redefine the term housing affordability.”


Ian Gilhooley stands on the balcony of his condo on West Cordova street in Vancouver.

Ian Gilhooley, a retired financial executive, said his Coal Harbour building has been hit with an insurance increase of close to 225 per cent, despite having no serious claims history.

“Basically, this market can be played, because nobody has any choice in the matter. What’s to stop it going up 300 per cent next year?” Gilhooley said. “There’s absolutely no way you can look at this marketplace and say it’s functioning properly … There’s a very broad public policy issue here.”

Almost half the condos in Vancouver are not occupied by their owners, and James, the finance minister, said that anything that could raise rents is a real concern.

Like Gilhooley, de Vooght said her Kelowna complex is meticulously maintained but still faces insurance premium hikes to $325,000 a year from $100,000 and deductibles for water damage jumping to $50,000 from $10,000.

“Frankly, this is not sustainable. Owners cannot afford these increases,” said de Vooght, noting numerous seniors in her building live on strict budgets. “Hard-working, responsible people have downsized to what we thought was an affordable way to retire, and now this has blown up in our faces.”

lculbert@postmedia.com

dfumano@postmedia.com

5Mar

Two B.C. post-secondary schools close over COVID-19 case

by admin


A student tries to enter University Canada West in Vancouver on Thursday. The school is closing for three days for disinfection after two students were potentially exposed to the new coronavirus.


Jason Payne / PNG

COVID-19 could be a “gut shot” to B.C. schools and universities that rely on fees from international students, an immigration expert said Thursday, as two private post-secondary schools in Vancouver closed their doors because of a case of the novel coronavirus.

University Canada West said a student is in quarantine after being visited by her father. The father tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving from overseas for a visit and developing symptoms, according to Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer. The student’s roommate is also in quarantine.

The business school and an arts and design school in the same building on West Pender Street will be closed for three days to do a deep cleaning.

“Students and staff who may have been in close contact with the affected students have been identified and contacted with information and advice,” said a UCW media release.

B.C. schools and universities said the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t significantly affected their international student programs, but administrators are monitoring the situation with an eye toward September enrolment.

At Simon Fraser University, a university-wide planning group is looking at possible impacts from the virus, including finances, said Angela Wilson, senior director of media relations and public affairs. SFU has not seen declining enrolment since visa offices have been closed in China and Iran, but they are monitoring the situation closely.

UBC has not seen any enrolment drops, but the situation is constantly evolving, said the director of university affairs, Matthew Ramsey.

UBC is working with prospective international students on a “case by case basis” to help those who may be experiencing difficulties getting their applications together, extending some deadlines to the end of March.

Ramsey could not say how many applications have been affected. UBC typically doesn’t have solid enrolment numbers until November.

“We are watching this really, really carefully,” he said about the virus, adding the university is following the advice of Canadian health authorities, including the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

In January, UBC created a working group of people from across campus to discuss issues related to the virus, including how classes and exams might be offered using technology if attendance was no longer advisable.

Impacts on the Vancouver school district’s international student program “are minimal at present,” according to a statement provided to Postmedia.

“VSB programs are linear and the majority of international students arrive in August to study here. Given our enrolment timelines, it’s too early to provide enrolment details (for the) next school year.”

But Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland said the coronavirus should be a concern for schools and universities as the closure of some Canadian visa application centres abroad will make it difficult for students hoping to attend school here.

“Canadian schools are about to experience a cash crunch,” he said. “Stopping the visa application centres is like shutting off the water flow. They might not feel it yet, but it’s coming.”

Kurland said international students who are currently studying in Canada may not be able to return home. Students are not allowed to work more than 20 hours per week off campus.

“That should be lifted immediately. They should be entitled to work to support themselves,” he said.

Several school districts have cancelled field trips because of the virus, including Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby. Overseas trips have been cancelled as well as those to New York City, Seattle, Burlington and Vancouver, Washington.

Also this week, the annual Asia-Pacific Association for International Education conference scheduled to be held in Vancouver later this month was postponed to March 2021. More than 2,500 people were registered to attend, said a news release.

In 2018, the B.C. government said the province had attracted more foreign students per capita than anywhere else in Canada — 130,000 in total — stating they inject $2 billion each year into the economy, creating 29,000 jobs.

In 2016, 28 per cent of UBC’s first-year contingent were foreign students.

A report on B.C. international students published in 2018 found that 13.7 per cent of post-secondary students in B.C. in 2016-17 were from outside Canada, as well as 7.7 per cent of the graduating Grade 12s. China (38 per cent) and India (21 per cent) were the two main sources of international students studying in B.C.

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With Postmedia files

gluymes@postmedia.com

twitter.com/glendaluymes

4Mar

Accused murderer suspected wife of affair, Kelowna court hears

by admin

After he was arrested for murder, a Surrey real estate agent wanted  Kelowna Mounties to investigate his common-law wife for infidelity.

In handcuffs at Kelowna General Hospital, Tejwant Danjou told police he suspected Rama Gauravarapu, who he’s accused of killing, was cheating on him.

“Mr. Danjou stated his wife was having an affair,” RCMP Const. Rick Goodwin testified Wednesday at Danjou’s B.C. Supreme Court trial in Kelowna for the second-degree murder of Gauravarapu.

While being examined at the hospital following his arrest, Danjou told Goodwin that police would find “crucial evidence” of the affair inside an F-150 truck in Surrey. “He wanted me to send officers to  Surrey to have this stuff obtained,” Goodwin testified.

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Danjou also told Goodwin police should obtain security camera footage  from Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in West Kelowna. Danjou and Gauravarapu had visited the winery earlier on July 22, 2018, the day  he’s accused of killing her in a West Kelowna hotel room.

“He said there would be video surveillance there, and he wanted me to get the video,” Goodwin said.

Danjou is accused of killing Gauravarapu, an RBC financial planner, in a room at the hotel and then hiding in a nearby dumpster, where he was found by police and arrested.The Crown says the pair’s relationship was a troubled one,  characterized by Danjou’s excessive drinking and his jealousy.

Goodwin said Danjou made the comments about suspecting his wife of an affair spontaneously and not in response to any questions that were asked of him. Goodwin said his role was simply to keep custody of Danjou while he was examined at hospital.

“I wasn’t there to solicit any information from Mr. Danjou,” Goodwin  said.

Throughout his interactions with Danjou, Goodwin said the accused was civil, unemotional, compliant and seemed to be aware of what was  going on.

“Mr. Danjou was polite the whole time,” Goodwin said. “He was always  calm, never yelled at me, never swore at me.”

During cross-examination, Danjou’s lawyer, Donna Turko, noted that Danjou had asked Goodwin his name five times during their interaction.

Turko asked Goodwin if it didn’t seem that Danjou was “a little off,” and if he wasn’t surprised to be asked his name five times.

“I don’t recall being shocked Mr. Danjou didn’t remember my name,”

Goodwin responded. “Maybe he had a lot on his mind.”

The trial continues.

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