Health officials say the Omicron variant now accounts for the vast majority of cases of COVID-19 in B.C. and the sheer number of people who could wind up being off sick could start to affect businesses' ability to stay open in coming weeks.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry warned businesses Tuesday to start creating contingency plans so they can keep their doors open when employees start calling in sick.
"We need to anticipate that as many as as one-third of a workforce might be ill and forced to stay away," she said during a news conference.
"The interruption to our business continuity is something we need to think more about."
Henry said the Omicron variant is now causing more than 80 per cent of B.C.'s new cases. Since its rate of transmission is so high, it means most people in B.C. likely know someone who has COVID-19.
"At this point, most people in B.C. likely have a friend or family member or a colleague who has been infected with the Omicron variant."
"Our challenge across the board in the next few weeks will be dealing with people who are away from work or school because they're sick."
Rolling average of COVID-19 cases by Health Region in Omicron wave
Case counts in B.C. have repeatedly broken all-time records over the past several weeks, even though testing has been restricted or unavailable in some areas.
Officials estimated last month the actual number of cases could be between three and five times higher than what's confirmed by testing.
So far, Henry said, most patients in B.C. have "milder, upper respiratory symptoms that could be similar to a cold or the flu." Hospitalizations and ICU admissions are "slowly creeping up," but haven't reached critical levels.
"[Omicron] means a lot of people will get sick and we are seeing that now, but your vaccine will protect most people from serious illnesses and hospitalization," she said.
Children back in class 'as soon as possible'
The province didn't announce any new public health measures Tuesday, but existing restrictions are still in place until Jan. 18.
The return of in-person learning at B.C. schools is still delayed until at least Jan. 10 to give schools time to strengthen safety protocols.
On Tuesday, Henry said schools are still not a significant source of transmission and the province is planning to get children back to class "as soon as possible."
"It's essential that we keep schools open for children … this is going to be and remains our highest priority," she said.
Firm up safety plans, Henry says
Henry urged both schools and businesses to start preparing for staffing shortages.
"Whether you're a private company, a school, a front-line business or a health-care site, now is the time that we have to prepare," she added.
"It's not about public health orders and us telling you what to do. This is about activating all of those layers of protection available for your business, in your situation, to prevent you from having to shut down because you don't have enough people to operate."
Henry said businesses need to shore up their safety plans if they haven't already. She recommended steps like staggering shifts, limiting the number of customers in the room at once, wearing well-fitting three-layer masks, washing hands regularly and using Plexiglas.
"Anyone who can work from home, you should be able to do that," she added.
More than 2,500 new cases Tuesday
B.C. confirmed 2,542 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, even with restricted testing. Hospitalizations rose to 298 from 220 on Friday.
There were 86 people in intensive care, up from 67 in the last week.
The variant's ability to spread like wildfire and its short incubation period mean case and contact tracing isn't going to be effective in B.C. anymore, Henry said. People who test positive or suspect they have COVID-19 are being asked to proactively let their contacts know they might have been exposed.
The province has also reduced the requirement to self-isolate after testing positive to five days, but only for fully vaccinated people without symptoms.
A mask must be worn around others for an additional five days after leaving self-isolation and those who've been sick should avoid high-risk settings like long-term care facilities or gatherings.