VANCOUVER -- B.C. has added 542 more cases of COVID-19 to its total, health officials announced Wednesday.

The written statement from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix also announced seven more deaths from the disease.

There are currently 4,654 active cases of the coronavirus in the province, a figure that includes 246 people who are hospitalized, 64 of whom are in intensive care.

Since the pandemic began, B.C. has recorded 81,909 cases of COVID-19 and 1,372 related deaths.

B.C. has now administered a total of 289,809 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, including 86,616 shots that are second doses.

Wednesday's update came shortly after Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization issued new guidance recommending a four-month gap between first and second shots of COVID-19 vaccines in Canada. 

B.C. announced on Monday that it was extending the timeline to four months in an effort to give more people protection from a first shot more quickly.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Dix said the decision will allow the province to give first doses of vaccine to 70,000 people in March and "hundreds of thousands" in April.

"It allows us to extend protection to more people, more quickly, and it's the right decision for people in B.C.," the health minister said. 

In their joint statement, Dix and Henry said the province's goal is "to protect as many people as possible as quickly as possible" using the three available COVID-19 vaccines.

Until a significant portion of the population is vaccinated, however, there will still be a need for public health measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the health officials said.

“More people vaccinated – whether in Nanaimo, Nelson or North Vancouver – makes all of us safer," the pair said. "Until we have that next level of community protection, so does staying the course with our safety measures, staying small and local."

The officials said 8,617 people are currently being monitored by public health officials because of exposures to known cases of COVID-19.

They also added that 18 new confirmed cases of coronavirus variants of concern are included in Wednesday's total.

B.C. has now recorded 200 cases of variants of concern, a total that includes 176 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant that emerged in the United Kingdom and 24 cases of the B.1.351 variant associated with South Africa.

There were no new COVID-19 outbreaks declared in the latest update from Henry and Dix.