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Good morning.

In this longest of winters, some things are looking up.

On Friday, British Columbia’s Public Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, offered a glimmer of hope for March Break, a tiny but tantalizing possibility of a loosening of restrictions that has limited gatherings to only members of the same household and discouraged travel to anywhere very far from home.

B.C.’s case-count curve has flattened, but it hasn’t bent downward much: Since the beginning of January, cases have fallen slowly to just over 400, from around 500, a dip that seems glacial compared to the skyrocketing surge of the second wave in the fall.

All that’s good, but it is balanced with the growing presence of COVID-19 variants, which are spread more easily and threaten to push cases up once again as efforts to vaccinate the most vulnerable stumble because of delivery delays.

So Dr. Henry is urging British Columbians to stick with the bitter medicine of social restrictions – a “hard push” she called it – to ensure an easing of those increased measures by the end of this month. The tighter restrictions were put into place in November and were set to end at midnight tonight. They won’t.

Instead, she said gatherings during the Super Bowl, Family Day, the Lunar New Year and Valentine’s Day simply can’t go ahead lest the fragile progress made so far be wiped out.

“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.”

When asked if there was a deadline or a target for when British Columbians could see some easing, Dr. Henry said she didn’t want to go there.

“We need to buy some time to understand if the positive things that we’re seeing are going to allow us to take away some of the restrictions we have in place now and be able to do that safely. So we don’t yet know what that is and that’s why I’m leaving it open-ended.”

Alberta, however, introduced some clear benchmarks this week.

Alberta is responding to dropping case counts by lifting some of its most extreme restrictions. Restaurants can reopen for in-person dining on Monday as part of what the government has described as a cautious and gradual plan to ease up on restrictions that were imposed in December, after infections had skyrocketed. (British Columbia’s restaurants have remained open under strict conditions since the spring.)

The province is relying heavily on hospitalization numbers, which have been falling since late December. The province intends to wait three weeks before deciding whether to move to the next stage of its reopening, which would relax rules for places such as retailers, banquet halls, conference centres and hotels. That would only happen if the province has fewer than 450 hospitalizations (there are currently 475 people in hospital).

As with British Columbia and other provinces, Alberta’s infection rates soared late last year, though Alberta’s hit a level not seen elsewhere in Canada. On a per-capita basis, Alberta led the country in hospitalizations and was among the worst for fatalities.

The measures imposed in December also included a complete ban on social gatherings, both inside and out, the closure of businesses such as hair salons, and the temporary cancellation of in-person classes for some grades. Those restrictions helped bend the curve to a point where the province’s daily infection rates are only slightly higher than B.C. and Manitoba, another Prairie province that was also a hot spot late last year.

The dropping case counts might be more cause for celebration if the growing numbers of cases of COVID variants wasn’t looming.

Premier Jason Kenney has warned that the more contagious forms of COVID-19 could prompt the government to reimpose restrictions if they take hold. Alberta has identified at least 68 cases of the variants, including at least 15 with no known links to travel. There have also been potential exposures at four schools and a daycare facility.

Deena Hinshaw, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, says it’s clear the variants are spreading in the community but that they don’t appear to be widespread. Alberta is testing for the variants at higher rates than most other provinces and, Dr. Hinshaw says, that means it has been able to identify a greater proportion of cases. The province can screen 300 samples a day for those variants, which allows it to test the vast majority of positive cases.

British Columbia 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, and the province is stepping up efforts to screen for them.

“We had only a few of these detected even as early as last week and we’ve now had double the number within this past week,” Dr. Henry said. “So this is something we are watching and are of great concern.”

Meanwhile, delays in delivery of vaccines are threatening to upend the schedule for getting people vaccinated.

Under B.C’s 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.

“It’s not going to be ‘yah, 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 because of the risk of transmission, and do that in a safe way in the coming weeks.’”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.