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Nurses close the curtains of a patient's room in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital in Surrey, B.C., on June 4, 2021.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

B.C. is allowing hospitals hard hit by the Omicron wave to place patients who test positive for COVID-19 with mild or no symptoms in rooms with twice-vaccinated people who are not infected as long as extra preventive measures are taken.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry explained at a pandemic briefing on Friday that this will apply only to patients who are brought to hospital for reasons other than COVID symptoms and without respiratory problems who test positive for the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix were asked about a memo the Fraser Health Authority sent to staff a week ago outlining the new guidelines for how to look after such patients “in the unit that best serves their care needs.” Some hospitals on the West Coast are struggling with capacity. Mr. Dix said earlier this month the province has a plan to establish large field hospitals if needed.

“That is an infection prevention and control team decision made at a hospital-by-hospital, and, actually, room-by-room and ward-by-ward basis, depending on the needs in that facility,” Dr. Henry told reporters on Friday.

Neither Mr. Dix nor Fraser Health clarified on Friday whether any hospital has done this.

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The Fraser Health recommendations, which were recently leaked to Global News and then shared by the authority with The Globe and Mail on Friday, say these patients should not be placed with people who are immunocompromised or have cardiac or respiratory problems. It also says they must be at least two metres from the beds of those without the virus, among other methods of reducing spread.

Mr. Dix said these decisions may be necessary as hospitals fill up, noting 891 people are now hospitalized for COVID-19.

“The pre-Omicron record was in the 500s,” he said.

Plus, he added, staffing issues are exacerbating challenges across the province, noting that a recent survey of Fraser Health employees showed 2,325 staff called in sick over three days at the start of this week – a quarter more people off than typical.

Dr. Henry said COVID-19 is far from being an endemic illness, so public health restrictions such as the closing of bars are still needed to prevent more hospitalizations. However, she said, those numbers have been declining, and B.C. will “be in a better place very soon.”

Caroline Colijn, an applied mathematician and disease modeller at Simon Fraser University, said B.C. is likely at or near the peak in Omicron transmission, but it will take a bit more time for the hospitalizations to hit their highest level.

Simon Fraser and other Metro Vancouver-area universities are set to reopen classrooms on Monday, and the uptick in transit use as tens of thousands of students commute to campuses will affect transmission levels, Dr. Colijn said.

“The impact … may not make the peak higher, but it may make it last longer or go down slower,” she said.

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, also spoke to media on Friday, noting “early indications” that infections may have peaked at the national level, including daily case counts, test positivity and waste water surveillance trends.

However, she said, daily numbers for hospitalization and intensive care admissions are “still rising steeply” and many hospitals are under “intense strain.”

She said that nationally, the average daily case count has decreased by 28 per cent compared to the previous week.

Dr. Tam said these numbers are likely an underestimation, because testing regimes have been overwhelmed in most places. But she said the seven-day average of nearly 27,000 cases reported daily as of Wednesday shows continuing high rates of infection, along with more than 22 per cent of lab tests coming back positive for COVID-19.

Disease activity remains widespread across the country, she added.

Dr. Henry said people who have been exposed to someone with a COVID-19 infection do not need to stay home, because everyone can assume they have been in contact with someone who has the virus.

“We cannot eliminate all risk, and I think that’s something that we need to understand and accept as this virus has changed and has become part of what we will be living with for years to come,” Dr. Henry said.

With reports from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa and The Canadian Press

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