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An independent COVID-19 modelling group says hospitalizations from COVID-19 are projected to overwhelm hospital capacity in British Columbia by May, unless rigorous restrictions are put in place.

The B.C. COVID 19 Modelling Group is made up of a range of academics from Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia and has support from the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences.

Sarah Otto, a UBC professor and a member of the group, has previously warned that the province is under-reporting its COVID-19 variants.

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She says transmission of the virus must be reduced by roughly 40 per cent from the levels seen in March to help health authorities control case growth.

The group also projects cases of variants of concern to rise to nearly 2,000 a day by late April.

Otto says this isn’t the COVID we know from last year, because the new variants are three to five times more likely to land a person in hospital.

“That spike is going to overwhelm hospitals and (intensive care unit) capacity before we have time to get our vaccines rolled out unless we bend this curve,” she said in an interview, referring to reducing the rate of virus transmission.

The province reported Wednesday that 397 people are in hospital due to the virus, surpassing a previous high of 374 seen in December.

British Columbia reported 1,168 new COVID-19 cases, bringing its total number to 114,870. There are 9,821 active COVID-19 cases, along with six new deaths.

Otto said B.C.’s vaccination program also needs to target those with the most contacts to both reduce infection and hospitalization rates over the next two to three months.

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B.C. had administered almost 1.2 million doses of the vaccines as of Wednesday.

“We really have to hold off on our collective activity for a couple more months and let the vaccination rollout play out,” Otto said. “The loosening up I think a lot of people were starting to do, it’s just not the right time.”

Rapid testing, along with targeting vaccinations to hot spots and members of the population most at risk, could reduce the spread of variants, Otto said.

In particular, rapid testing could improve B.C.’s contact tracing efforts, which could better identify areas of transmission, she added.

Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in a joint statement that all those eligible to be vaccinated should do so.

“This not only protects you, but also provides greater protection to everyone around you,” they said.

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The warning from experts comes after B.C. Premier John Horgan said Tuesday that his cabinet would be considering further restrictions.

The B.C. Restaurants and Food Association said it was informed by Henry that current dine-in restrictions would likely be extended past April 19 and into May.

The association said in a release that members were told the rise in B.C.’s COVID-19 cases was given as one of the reasons for the extension of closures.

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