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British Columbia is expected to start informing people over age 80 about their vaccinations for COVID-19 starting next week as the province prepares to open mass clinics while doing more in-depth testing for variants.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said B.C. is in a phase of “vaccine hope and pandemic reality” but an age-based immunization plan will remain in place despite some calls to prioritize essential workers.

“I think that’s been absolutely supported across the world,” she told a news conference Tuesday.

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“Our goals are to minimize morbidity and mortality and to minimize the impact on society of the pandemic. And the primary goal that we have is to keep our health-care system functioning and to protect lives with the amount of vaccine that we have.”

Any change in the immunization plan to prioritize both essential workers and people who can’t work from home would be considered after enough vaccines are available, Henry said.

The province is expanding its pool of immunizers to include dentists, midwives and paramedics before 172 sites open to eventually offer a vaccine to everyone age 18 and up, she said.

B.C. recorded 559 new cases on Tuesday, for a total of 77,822. One more person has died, bringing the total number of fatalities to 1,336 since the start of the pandemic.

Deeper analysis of suspicious samples that could be variants of concern is being increased in B.C. after an unknown number of cases were recently identified at seven schools in the Fraser Health region.

“It’s important for us to understand where we are in the trajectory and what the potential is for increasing cases,” Henry said. “It is concerning that we are seeing an increase in per cent positivity in our seven-day rolling average of cases, particularly again, in the Lower Mainland.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said 224,354 doses of vaccine have been administered so far, and 58,896 people have received second doses. He said 92 per cent of long-term care residents have had their first shot, while that number goes up to 94 per cent for staff.

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Forty-nine long-term care and assisted-living homes had outbreaks on Jan. 15, but that number is now down to 12 facilities, Dix said, adding that points to the “extraordinary” effectiveness of vaccines.

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