B.C.'s public health officials said contact tracing and testing sites are at maximum capacity as the province goes through its worst surge of COVID-19 yet, driven primarily by the more infectious Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
Health officials announced 2,441 new COVID-19 cases on Friday — the fourth straight day with record daily case numbers in the province — with 1,613 cases of the Omicron variant identified in B.C. so far, 959 of which were identified in the Vancouver Coastal Health authority.
"If you have any symptoms of COVID-19 ... you must assume you have COVID and take measures to avoid passing it on," Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, said at a Friday news conference.
"Omicron is different ... in a sense, we're in a different game."
Henry said testing should be available for those most at risk as well as health-care workers who need negative tests to work.
She therefore urged people in British Columbia to not seek testing for travel purposes and be proactive with self-isolation if they suspect they have COVID-19.
Those who are fully vaccinated, are not immunocompromised and have mild symptoms, should self-isolate for a week. Those who are not fully vaccinated should self-isolate for 10 days.
WATCH | Henry says B.C. has reached testing capacity:
Close contacts should self-monitor for symptoms for two weeks, in the absence of contact tracing, and unvaccinated close contacts should self-isolate for 10 days.
The provincial death toll from COVID-19 is now 2,414 lives lost out of 235,658 confirmed cases to date.
Triage occurring at long testing lines
On Thursday, the province conducted 20,133 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, the most ever in a single day in B.C., according to Health Minister Adrian Dix.
With long lines at testing sites, officials said "triage" is occurring in the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health authorities, with some of those looking to get a PCR test being given a rapid antigen test instead.
"If you are younger and don't have underlying risk factors, particularly if you're vaccinated, then rapid testing may be the most efficient way for you to get what you need," Henry said.
Vancouver Coastal Health has opened a new testing centre at the University of British Columbia's Life Sciences Centre that will be open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The health authority says it will be temporarily diverting people accessing COVID-19 testing services at the St. Vincent testing site to the new site at UBC starting on Christmas Day due to the winter storm warning.
The UBC site will be indoors, the health authority says, but it can complete the same amount of testing as the St. Vincent site.
"With the end of term and delayed return of students to classes, the site at UBC presented a safe, quick, and effective option to scale [Vancouver Coastal Health] testing services," Vancouver Coastal Health said in a statement to CBC News on Saturday.
The health department said it will work closely with UBC to ensure safe access to the site, including during inclement weather.
Older people and those who are immunocompromised, as well as younger children, are now being prioritized for PCR tests the gold standard test to confirm or rule out an infection.
Health Minister Adrian Dix defended the province's age-based strategy for rolling out booster doses.
People in their 60s throughout the province are being invited to book their third shots six months after their second dose, along with clinically vulnerable people. Currently, people over 63 are being invited to book their shots.
"Our rollout continues to be robust," Dix said. "Twenty per cent of the eligible population [has] already received their third dose."
A total of 147,371 vaccinations are projected to be given between Dec. 22 and Jan. 2, according to Dix, and he urged anyone who has received an invitation to book their shots.
Current COVID-19 restrictions
Henry revealed the latest round of public health orders while speaking at a Tuesday news conference.
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 adult dance classes must be shut down.
Seated events like concerts, sports games and movie theatres are down to 50 per cent capacity.
Swimming pools can continue to operate, but staff must scan proof of vaccination QR codes before allowing users in. Hotel pools are exempt.
Personal gatherings are still limited to your household plus 10 guests or one additional household. Everyone in the household must be vaccinated.
The new rules do not include restrictions around travel within B.C. ahead of Christmas. The province has emphasized the need to balance families' mental health with reducing the spread of the virus.