B.C. limits indoor gatherings, cancels New Year's Eve events as Omicron picks up speed

·3 min read
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a raft of new public health orders to deal with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 on Friday. (Mike McArthur/CBC - image credit)
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a raft of new public health orders to deal with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 on Friday. (Mike McArthur/CBC - image credit)

As British Columbia faces yet another surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, health officials have announced new public health restrictions, including limits on indoor gatherings, capacity limits in large venues, suspension of sports tournaments and cancellations of organized New Year's Eve events.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry revealed the latest round of public health orders on Friday afternoon, warning that Omicron spreads very quickly and will soon become the dominant variant in British Columbia.

"While vaccination remains the best defence against COVID-19, we are now dealing with the new threat of a more transmissible variant," Henry said.

"We need to take these measures until we understand the full impact Omicron will have in the B.C. context. It is imperative people follow the new orders in how they celebrate this season."

The new public health measures, which will come into effect on Monday and remain in place until Jan. 31, include:

  • Indoor personal gatherings limited to household members plus 10 guests or one additional household — as long as everyone 12 and over is vaccinated.

  • Venues holding more than 1,000 people limited to 50 per cent capacity.

  • Organized New Year's Eve events of all sizes must be cancelled, except for seated gatherings.

  • Sports tournaments and associated travel are suspended for all ages.

  • B.C. vaccine cards required for events of all sizes, including those involving fewer than 50 people.

  • Diners at restaurants must remain at their tables and not mix or mingle with other parties.

Henry also urged retailers to have COVID-19 safety plans in place for holiday and Boxing Day sales and said the province will be stepping up scanning of vaccine QR codes to make sure proof of vaccination is confirmed in all settings.

The Vancouver Canucks said they are working on how to implement the new capacity limits beginning on Monday, but attendance numbers will not be reduced for games this weekend.

The latest measures do not include an advisory against non-essential travel within the province or across the country, though health officials say unvaccinated people should not travel. The federal government has already advised Canadians against international travel over the holiday season.

"I recognize that this unrelenting uncertainty is unsettling. This can cause anxiety, depression and discouragement. I want to say we can get through this," Henry said.

Friday's announcement did not include any updates on the province's booster shot program or about making rapid tests widely available.

WATCH | British Columbians asked to keep holiday parties small:

Virus spreading among younger people at parties

Henry said health officials are seeing a major spike in cases driven largely by younger people who are becoming infected at informal parties. The surge in cases has been especially dramatic in densely populated areas such as Vancouver Coastal Health.

Perhaps because most of those affected are fully vaccinated and younger, the cases linked to Omicron haven't caused serious illness in B.C. so far, but it's still unknown how severe sickness with this variant will be, Henry said.

Health Minister Adrian Dix also noted that Nova Scotia and Quebec both reported record high numbers of COVID-19 cases on Friday, which signals challenging times ahead in the rest of the country.

Weekly % of COVID-19 cases in B.C. by vaccine status

Overall, there are now more new cases of COVID-19 among vaccinated than unvaccinated people, who now account for just 13 per cent of the population over the age of five.

Mathematically speaking, this is not an unexpected outcome considering the very small proportion of the population that remains unvaccinated and has been predicted by health officials since B.C.'s vaccine program began.

According to numbers released by the province on Thursday, each individual unvaccinated person is still about five times more likely to test positive for COVID-19. Rates over the past week showed 176.5 cases per 100,000 people compared to 35.5 cases per 100,000 for fully vaccinated people.

Unvaccinated people are especially likely to become seriously ill, accounting for 66 per cent of hospitalizations over the past two weeks, despite their comparatively smaller numbers.

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