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Skiers stand in a physically distanced line up for lift passes during the first day of the downhill ski season at Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver on Nov. 13, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The second wave of the pandemic has crested in British Columbia, offering the chance that current restrictions on travel and gatherings may ease in March – but Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry is urging residents to continue efforts to limit the spread of the virus until then.

Despite dropping case counts, B.C. cannot ease up on regulations that limit social gatherings to households only. Instead, the province needs time to get its vaccination plans back on track and to ensure that the spread of new variants is under control, Dr. Henry said.

The province has now detected 28 cases of the most troubling variants of the virus to date, strains that have been traced to Britain and South Africa.

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Dr. Henry said the province is increasing its capacity to screen for the variants. It is also watching with alarm some indications that the variants not only spread more easily, but may cause more serious illness.

“We are bending our curve, slowly and steadily. But we need to protect the progress we have made since the start of this year and not squander our success,” Dr. Henry told reporters on Friday.

“To do this, we need to buy ourselves more time to get our immunization program fully back on track, to push our cases down further. And this will allow us to respond … rapidly to any surge in variants of concern.”

The province unveiled its mass COVID-19 vaccination plan in January, but vaccine shortages and delays in shipments have effectively stalled the program, with most new supply being devoted to delivering booster shots for those who have already had their first dose.

Under the original plan, seniors in long-term care and remote Indigenous communities were given priority for the first available vaccine, but by mid-February, all people older than 80 were supposed to get a chance to book an appointment for a shot. Now, Dr. Henry said, it will likely be early March before those bookings will start.

The data released on Friday show the hotspots in B.C. have shifted away from metropolitan areas to some rural communities and winter recreation destinations, with the resort town of Whistler recording 547 COVID-19 cases in the past month.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said new pandemic safety rules are being developed for the ski industry. “It’s not skiing on the mountain that has been the principal source of transmission,” he said. “We’re seeing transmission in social gathering and social settings around Whistler.”

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People between the ages of 20 and 49 account for the largest share of new cases – a trend Dr. Henry attributed to socializing and workplace transmission.

Seniors in long-term care homes account for roughly two-thirds of all COVID-19 deaths in B.C. So far, 87 per cent of seniors have had their first COVID-19 vaccine – and that is already starting to reduce the number of outbreaks in facilities, Dr. Henry said.

Since November, social gatherings of any size have been banned at home, while cultural events and in-person religious gatherings and worship services are prohibited. The province has asked residents to avoid non-essential travel, and has discouraged visitors from the rest of Canada.

Dr. Henry said even if the current trends continue, any changes to current restrictions will not be dramatic until mass vaccinations are well under way.

“It’s not going to be, ‘Yay, we’re out of this, we’re back to normal.’ It’s going to be, can we slowly and thoughtfully find an increase in those social connections that we all really want, and some of the activities that we’ve had to curtail?”

Dr. Henry added, “If we start to see one of these variants take off, then all bets are off and we may need to actually increase some of the restrictions that we have in place.”

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