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Fraser Health registered nurse Kai Kayibadi draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on May 17, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia has opened its COVID-19 immunization program to youth 12 and older, and is encouraging families to attend vaccine clinics together.

“Appointments are being booked for about 310,000 youth aged 12 to 17, and all of them are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine,” Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry told a news conference Thursday.

“We know that youth are excited, not only because it’s important to protect themselves, but because they know that it’s important to protect their families and their loved ones,” she said. “I hear from youth, it is time to get their lives back so that we can get to that new future where we’re able to socialize again, spend time together with those that we love.”

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The province is expected to ease some pandemic restrictions next week.

The expanded vaccine plan will be offered through existing clinics rather than schools, in part so that parents or guardians who already have a shot booked can bring eligible children along to be vaccinated at the same time.

In a bid to remove potential barriers, the province is easing some identification requirements – a medical card won’t be needed – and parents are not required to provide consent for vaccines. Under B.C. law, youth can give informed consent, and staff at vaccine clinics will be prepared to provide unaccompanied youth with vaccines.

“We’ll make sure that resources are available in all of the clinics to assess if a young person comes in by themselves, to make sure that they understand the implications and can consent for receiving vaccinations,” Dr. Henry said.

The expansion of the vaccine eligibility will not delay those who are waiting for a booster shot, she maintained. Only about 3 per cent of British Columbians are fully vaccinated, but next week almost 105,000 people are booked for their second shot. The interval between first and second shots will be reduced for most people to 13 weeks from 16 weeks, as supply has increased beyond early expectations.

Meanwhile, B.C. is waiting until next Tuesday to announce how quickly pandemic restrictions will be lifted, as the third wave of the pandemic continues to drop.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said the “circuit-breaker” measures will be lifted after the long weekend.

On March 30, B.C. shut down restaurants and bars for indoor service and paused indoor, adult group fitness activities. It has also tightened travel restrictions to prohibit non-essential travel between regions in the province. Indoor gatherings have been prohibited since November.

“People can expect on Tuesday that the circuit breaker will be over,” Mr. Horgan told reporters. “This is great news for young people who, as Bonnie said, want to get on with their lives. It’s great news for entrepreneurs. It’s great news for workers, it is great news for adults who want to get on with their lives.”

While Ontario unveiled its plan on Thursday for a “slow and cautious” reopening between now and mid-June, Mr. Horgan said he did not want to divulge details before the end of the long weekend, in fear that people may ignore restrictions over what is usually the unofficial start of summer.

“As we’ve seen in previous situations throughout the pandemic, that when people hear that there’s good news on the horizon, they assume that horizon is now, and we need to get through this long weekend,” Mr. Horgan said.

Health Minister Adrian Dix stressed that B.C. hospitals are still stretched thin with COVID-19 patients, although case numbers are declining. Since April 19, the province has cancelled 1,800 non-urgent surgeries to provide relief to hospital staff.

“We are not making changes as of today, and what we’re doing in acute care is an important message to everyone that we need to stay the course, especially during this long weekend,” Mr. Dix said.

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