VICTORIA — British Columbia has taken a step backwards in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the province to impose circuit breaker measures for the next three weeks to slow the rapid spread of the virus, says the provincial health officer.
B.C. recorded 2,518 new COVID-19 cases over the past three days, which included 329 cases of variants of concern, and six deaths, bringing the provincial death total to 1,455 people, Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday.
The COVID-19 cases are growing at an "exponential" rate, which is putting strain on the health-care system, she said at a news conference.
"Our balance in B.C. is now off," she said. "At this time, it is a step back from where we want to be and where we need to be. We need a circuit breaker to stop this virus now."
Henry said starting Tuesday until April 19, indoor dining at restaurants, bars and pubs and adult group activity at fitness centres are paused, while the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort will be closed as COVID-19 cases spread in the community.
Only last week, Henry announced the easing of restrictions on indoor religious services, but that has also been reversed.
“It is with a heavy heart that I have to announce this," she said Monday. "I cannot in all conscience, with the increased numbers of cases that we are having and the risk that we see from indoor services, allow these types of activities to happen right now."
Henry said recent data continues to show that indoor settings are where COVID-19 transmissions are occurring and the case trajectory continues upwards.
She said she had been working for weeks with faith leaders to permit services for the coming religious holidays of Passover, Easter, Ramadan and Vaisakhi, but the indoor risk is too great now.
"We're just in a very difficult position," said Henry. "Some of these important holidays are going to be difficult this year, again."
She said the province will also amend its mask-wearing mandate in all schools for children from grades 4 to 12.
A spokesman for B.C.'s restaurant industry said the new orders are disappointing to businesses that have been working to serve customers and survive during the pandemic.
"This is going to be a substantial hit and we are not going to be able to make it up on patios," said Ian Tostenson, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association. "But we've got the back of Dr. Henry. This is going to take the collective will of all British Columbians."
He said restaurants have been following B.C.'s health orders to provide safe service to customers, but COVID-19 infection rates among young staff members have been a concern, as has the virus's growth rates for young people provincially.
Health officials are concerned the increase in variants of concern from the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa are driving much of the current transmission, said Henry.
Henry also said B.C. will follow other provinces and jurisdictions and suspend the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for the next few days for those under age 55 over concerns it may be linked to rare blood clots.
The instances of clots are rare, but B.C. will take the precaution of suspending the use of the vaccine temporarily, she said.
"We now are looking at our safety signals and taking action," Henry said. "This is our safety system working across the world and in Canada."
For those who have had the vaccine, if it's been more than 20 days, there should be no concerns, she said. Those who more recently received the vaccine should watch for symptoms of a blood clot, and there are tests and treatment in such instances, she added.
Henry urged people to restrict themselves to outdoor activities and limit travel to essential only.
"Right now, we are asking you to be part of the solution for this next few weeks," she said. "Take an extra effort to be aware. Stay outside when you are with your friends."
Workers are strongly urged to work from home, if possible, Henry said.
Premier John Horgan said rising COVID-19 case numbers in the past days are "unacceptably high."
He urged those aged 20 to 39 years old to curb activities to protect their parents and neighbours.
"We cannot blow it now,” said Horgan. “We need to redouble our efforts.”
The Opposition Liberals blamed Horgan's government for creating confusion and anxiety over first loosening and then tightening the restrictions.
"For weeks now we have heard from the premier that people could plan vacations and that we were on the right track despite rising case numbers and hospitalizations," said interim leader Shirley Bond in a statement.
Henry's orders Monday did not mention the April 1 changes to visits to B.C.'s elder care facilities.
She said last week the requirement for a single designated visitor to an elder care facility would be lifted to allow visits by multiple family members after more than a year of tough restrictions.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2021.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press