B.C. health officials said Thursday the province's health-care system is under "immense" pressure due to COVID-19, with hospitalizations reaching new highs, necessitating the postponement of some non-urgent surgeries.
There are currently a record 502 people in hospital, 161 of whom are in intensive care.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry also announced 1,006 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and four more deaths due to the disease.
"The pressure on our health-care system is immense right now," Henry said. She urged people to follow public health guidelines and orders to help stop the spread of the coronavirus and reduce that pressure.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said rising cases in the Lower Mainland, especially, have increased the strain on hospitals to the point where non-urgent surgeries are being rescheduled.
In Fraser Health, Dix estimated, 750 non-urgent scheduled surgeries will not be performed in the next two week period. Vancouver Coastal Health will see 1,000 non-urgent surgeries postponed.
"This news is obviously disappointing for some patients and their families," Dix said. "We talk about non-urgent surgeries but ... every one of them is medically necessary and needed."
He said Lower Mainland health authorities are asking nurses who are specialty trained in critical care but currently working in community settings to redeploy to hospitals on a voluntary basis. Eight nurses from the Provincial Health Services Authority have been redeployed to Fraser Health.
So far, B.C. has recorded 122,757 cases of COVID-19, including 1,550 people who have died.
In a statement released later Thursday, health officials reported 8,733 active cases of COVID-19 in B.C. and 12,846 people under public health monitoring for exposure to known cases.
As of Thursday, 1,500,430 total doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered, 88,475 of which are second doses.
Thursday's update included a new outbreak in B.C.'s health-care system at Mount St. Mary Hospital, a long-term care facility in Victoria.
Hospitalizations expected to keep rising
Henry said she expects hospitalizations will continue to rise in B.C. for the next few weeks but is hopeful that things will then start to "slow down" along with transmission of the coronavirus.
Patients from northern B.C. who might normally be sent south to Metro Vancouver for care may now be sent to Vancouver Island, Dix said.
Dix added anyone whose surgery is being postponed will be rescheduled as soon as possible.
"This is a necessary step," Dix said. "But it is not easy."
New restrictions coming
Wednesday's numbers indicated B.C.'s rolling caseload average is on a downward trend, but hospitalizations — which typically lag behind spikes and dips in new cases — are up from last week.
On Wednesday, officials reported that, for the first time in B.C., a person in their 20s had died of COVID-19. Earlier this week, Henry announced a child under the age of two had died.
In an effort to stop further transmission, new travel restrictions are due to take effect in B.C. on Friday.
Earlier this week, Premier John Horgan announced Solicitor General Mike Farnworth would be drafting orders for strict new travel measures that will last until after the May long weekend.
Those orders, Horgan said Monday, are intended to stop people leaving their health authority areas for non-essential reasons. There will be random audits of travellers to make sure people are in compliance.
Full details on the official rules will be announced Friday, including a clearer definition of what constitutes "essential travel" and what penalties might be in store for those who break the rules.
'Variant of interest'
Passenger flights from India and Pakistan to Canada are to be banned for 30 days starting Thursday night, CBC News has learned, as concerns grow about rising case numbers in India and new mutations of the virus.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control reported 42 cases B1617 in the province as of Thursday.
The variant, first identified in India, has two mutations and is associated with a poorer antibody response, according to an immunologist with the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Quebec.
Dix announced Wednesday the B1617 variant is considered a "variant of interest" and Henry on Thursday continued to describe the variant in those terms.
"If this variant is not a variant of concern — and it has not been identified as such yet — it's concerning," Dix said Wednesday. "That being said, all cases of COVID-19, are of concern. They are in India and they are in Canada."
A variant becomes a variant of concern when its changes have a clinical or public health significance: for example, if it affects the transmission, severity, vaccine effectiveness and/or diagnostic testing of the disease.
Henry said B1617 has been seen in several instances in recent weeks. Some cases are associated with direct travel from India but others are not travel-linked. She said there are no indications at this time the variant is widespread in B.C. but banning flights is the right move.
"It's a tragedy globally that we are seeing, and India is bearing the brunt of it right now," Henry said. "We are very supportive of the federal government stopping flights coming into Canada right now."
As of Thursday, British Columbians born in 1996 or earlier can register online, by phone at 1-888-838-2323 or in-person at a Service B.C. office to get their first dose of a vaccine. Once registered, individuals will be contacted when it is their time to book an appointment.
People born in 1981 or earlier are eligible for the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine now through pharmacies and, in some hard-hit areas, special clinics.
Officials have released a list of 13 community health service areas that have seen the highest COVID-19 case rates, which will be given top priority through the clinics. Eligibility for those clinics is based on postal code.
People who wish to get the AstraZeneca vaccine through a pharmacy need to book their shot with the pharmacy itself. The province provides a list of participating pharmacies online. Pharmacies have limited supplies of the vaccine.