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B.C. shuts down bars, prepares to cancel surgeries as Omicron drives up case counts

THE LATEST:

  • More health restrictions are coming into effect in B.C., shutting bars and banning gatherings like weddings.
  • The province is expanding its rapid testing program, though the changes will take at least two weeks.
  • Officials are opening more vaccination centres, including reopening the Vancouver Convention Centre, to speed up booster shots.
  • B.C. will be cancelling scheduled surgeries as of Jan. 4.
  • The province is currently seeing case levels it’s “never heard of before,” officials say.

Officials have announced more public health restrictions in B.C., including a shutdown of bars and nightclubs, as well as plans to cancel scheduled surgeries as the Omicron variant spreads across the province.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry revealed the latest round of public health orders on Tuesday.

The new measures take effect Wednesday and include:

  • No indoor organized gatherings of any size, including weddings, receptions and parties.
  • Bars and nightclubs closed.
  • Maximum of six people per table at a restaurant, pub or cafe.
  • Gyms, fitness centres and dance studios must be shut down. 
  • Seated events like concerts, sports games, movie theatres are down to 50 per cent capacity.

The rules will be in place until Jan. 18.

The new restrictions are in addition to the existing orders which came into effect Monday.

Personal gatherings are still limited to your household plus 10 guests or one additional household if it’s larger than 10 guests. Everyone in the house must be vaccinated.

The new rules do not include restrictions around travel within B.C. ahead of Christmas. The province on Tuesday emphasized the need to balance families’ mental health with reducing the spread of the virus.

“I know at this time of year, we need to be with our family … to provide support, to get support,” Henry said. “Pick your group, make it as small as possible and stick with them this holiday season.”

New orders come after B.C. watched Ontario, Quebec

Officials said the new orders were made after B.C. examined data over the weekend from other jurisdictions like Quebec, Ontario and the U.K. for signs of what could happen locally.

Those places are several weeks ahead of B.C. in their pandemics and dealing with even higher case counts. 

Henry said she was particularly concerned with the strain on the health-care systems in the U.K. and Quebec.

“We know this is a disappointing and discouraging thing to hear at this point in time. We’ve done the right thing over and over,” Henry said.

“This virus doesn’t recognize that … It has changed and so must we.”

WATCH | It’s ‘Inevitable’ that most people in B.C. will be exposed to virus, says Henry:

‘Inevitable’ that most people in B.C. will be exposed, says province’s top doctor

9 hours ago

Duration 1:06

Dr. Bonnie Henry said given how the Omicron variant is driving transmission of COVID-19, it is very likely at this point that most people will be exposed to the virus, and so how they conduct themselves will be crucial. 1:06

B.C. is currently seeing “case levels we’ve never heard of before,” Henry said Tuesday. The province confirmed 1,308 new cases on Tuesday — an all-time daily record for B.C. since the beginning of the pandemic.

The new additions bring the total number of active cases to 6,348.

The rolling average of new cases in B.C. has risen more than 114 per cent in a week, driven by Omicron.

Epidemiologists have warned that even if Omicron is eventually shown to cause milder sickness, its rapid spread could still send an unmanageable number of people to exhausted hospitals.

Rapid test strategy

B.C. is also expanding its rapid test strategy, though not to the level seen in other provinces.

In the next month, more rapid tests will be provided for symptomatic people at testing centres, at long-term care facilities and for vulnerable communities and businesses. Health-care workers in acute care will also have access.

The program will be expanded in later January to include K-12 schools and post-secondary institutions. There are no current plans to cancel in-person classes for either group.

A health-care worker is pictured at a Fraser Health COVID-19 immunization and testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Dec. 13, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Testing centres in B.C. have been stretched over the last week. Since rapid tests are not readily available to the general public, people looking to confirm whether they are positive or not ahead of the holidays have no other option.

The strategy Tuesday did not hint at any plans to make free rapid tests widely available to the public.

In total, the province expects 700,000 rapid tests to be delivered in the next two weeks. Officials are hoping to receive another 11 million from the federal government in January.

Booster shot timeline

Officials are accelerating the booster shot program in B.C. Evidence shows two vaccine doses are not enough to stop an Omicron infection — though the vaccines still substantially reduce the risk of hospitalization and serious illness. 

While B.C.’s age-based and critically vulnerable strategy will continue, the province is expanding vaccination capacity by using pharmacies and opening more local clinics.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix is pictured during a COVID-19 briefing on Friday. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The new targeted completion date for the booster program is now the end of March instead of May. Officials hinted Tuesday the expansion has been slowed because health-care staff are stretched thin. 

“There is no infinite pool of people who are able to vaccinate,” said Henry.

All of the five health authorities are working to open vaccination clinics, including reopening the Vancouver Convention Centre as well as other mass sites in the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island.

Cancelled surgeries

Scheduled surgeries in B.C. are being postponed starting Jan. 4 to “manage pressures on hospital capacity,” the province said. Urgent or emergency surgeries will still go ahead.

Officials expect roughly 3,000 surgeries will be cancelled per week. The cancellations mean key staff can be redeployed elsewhere, including vaccination clinics to help with boosters and shots for children five to 11.

Surgery rescheduling will be determined at a later date in January. 

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