B.C. Premier John Horgan announced Wednesday that the province will hire up to 500 new contact tracers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Horgan said while he praises the work of the federal government in developing the COVID-19 tracing app, “nothing replaces person to person contact.”

The app is available for download across Canada but is not yet active in B.C.

READ MORE: B.C. reports 85 new cases of COVID-19, 2 new cases in Island Health

Horgan, along with Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, explained that public health teams usually follow up on the close connections of people who’ve tested positive for the virus, but more resources are needed during this pandemic.

According to Horgan, the newly announced contact tracing jobs will be temporary, will start in Sept and will be recruited from health backgrounds. The Ministry of Health is working with Health Match BC and the health authorities to manage the recruitment process.

Some of the positions will also help to support public health services, such as providing education in communities, and possibly immunizing for influenza and other diseases. According to the province, reducing the number of people with the flu helps alleviate the burden on provincial laboratory testing infrastructure and protects acute-care capacity in B.C.’s hospitals as respiratory illness season approaches this fall.

Both Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix joined Horgan during Wednesday’s announcement.

Henry said contact tracing and case management are possibly new terms for British Columbians, but “this is bread and butter work for public health.”

“This allows us now to get more people trained up to do this really important work as we continue through the progression of our pandemic,” she said.

Public health authorities will do the recruiting for the 500 positions, and teams will be ready to deploy across the province if needed.

“This allows us now to get more people trained up to do this really important work, as we continue through the progression of our pandemic,” Henry said.

Henry said COVID-19 cases have been gradually increasing in the province. There are now around 1,700 people who have been in contact with positive COVID-19 cases and isolating. Henry says they are now able to reach 98 per cent of people who were in close contact with a test positive case.

“Contract tracing is hard work, a lot of us are working long hours trying to do this,” Henry said.

Henry also said the province is not concerned about lineups for COVID-19 testing.

She said turnaround times are watched carefully and they’ve gone up in a couple places. B.C. has the capacity for testing, she said.

It is anticipated that the new contact tracers will begin work in September 2020 and will be employed until the end of March 2021, with opportunity for extension if needed.

Watch the press conference below: 

Horgan’s media availability comes after Education Minister Rob Fleming announced earlier that children in British Columbia will be returning to classrooms two days later than originally planned as part of a gradual restart to schooling, the education minister says.

Fleming said this week that students wouldn’t be expected back on the original date of Sept. 8 to help give administrators and teachers more time to prepare for education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff will now meet on Sept. 8, while students will be welcomed in classrooms by Sept. 10.

“We arrived at the two days after discussions with all the leaders of all the major partner groups in B.C.” Fleming said on Wednesday. “This is the best scenario, I think, to continue to build the confidence and familiarity with the protocols that are in place.”

He said outdoor education will play a large role in the first two months of classes and emphasized the importance of students returning to schools to continue their education.

“We can’t sacrifice 18 months of education, we have to learn how to do things safely during this pandemic. That’s why we’ve developed and evolved the guidelines to maximize the return to in-class instruction,” Fleming said.

He acknowledged that some parents will not feel comfortable sending their kids back to school and the province’s distributed learning centres would help those who have concerns.

School districts will individually set the hours of the first two days back in school, Fleming added.

A government steering committee, established to help schools plan their restart, will issue operational guidelines next week on issues ranging from health and safety protocols to supporting the mental health of students.

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and Canadian Union of Public Employees K-12 Presidents Council said in a statement that it supports the gradual restart plan.

“The details announced this morning will help ensure that all K-12 workers will understand how schools will operate in the ‘new normal,’ ” said Paul Faoro, the president of the B.C. union branch. “All stakeholders generally support this phased-in approach.”

The government is spending $45.6 million on safety measures, including increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces, an increased number of hand-hygiene stations and boosting the availability of masks.

Students will be organized into learning groups to reduce the number of people they come in contact with, cutting the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus.

Children in elementary and middle schools will have their learning groups capped at 60, while students in secondary schools will have a cap of 120.

Last week, Premier Horgan didn’t hold a media availability to address the ongoing COVID-19 situation specifically, however, was on the mainland to open a new health facility in Surrey when he was asked about an incident that had arisen in his Langford-Juan de Fuca riding.

The incident took place at Mr. Mikes Steakhouse Casual in Langford and involved guests who opted to “verbally attack” staff due to new COVID-19 protocols, according to the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Horgan’s responded to news of the incident by disapproving of the “unacceptable” behaviour, saying “to have idiots come in and be idiots is quite frankly is not acceptable. I’m very disappointed about it.”

Another recent announcement from Horgan’s government came on Tuesday, when it was revealed that BC Ferries would be eligible to receive a portion of the federal and provincial government spending through the Safe Restart Agreement in order to help deal with financial losses.

With files from The Canadian Press

Graham Cox, Alexa Huffman