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B.C. closing bars and gyms, banning indoor weddings as Omicron becomes dominant variant

The B.C. government has introduced another set of COVID-19 restrictions after watching hospitalization numbers surge in other jurisdictions that are grappling with the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the latest measures Tuesday afternoon, asking for the public's co-operation once again as the situations in other provinces and countries paint an increasingly troubling picture of what B.C. can expect in the coming weeks.

"They say that adversity introduces us to ourselves, and B.C. has shown that we are strong, resilient and supportive of each other," Henry said. "But our storm of COVID-19 is not yet over."

The latest public health order will force bars and nightclubs to close while banning organized indoor gatherings such as weddings and holiday parties, no matter the size.

The same rules for personal gatherings at homes and vacation rentals that came into effect on Monday will remain in place throughout the holidays, however, meaning B.C. residents can still invite over one other household or 10 guests, provided everyone age 12 and over is vaccinated.

Gyms, fitness centres and dance studios will also be forced to temporarily close under the new measures, and venues such as cinemas, theatres and sports arenas will be reduced to 50 per cent capacity.

Restaurants will only be able to seat a maximum of six people per table, while using the same physical distancing or barriers that were required earlier in the pandemic.

The latest restrictions are being imposed from Dec. 23 through Jan. 18, health officials said.

Word that more COVID-19 measures were being announced just days after the last round took effect raised some eyebrows, particularly among people feeling weary of the cyclical nature of the pandemic.

But Henry said the government spent the weekend analyzing national and international data, particularly around hospitalizations, and decided more needed to be done.

"I don't need to say how fragile and how stretched our health-care system is," she said. "And over this past weekend, it's become clear that our best-case scenario about how Omicron might be different in terms of severity might be less and less likely."

The Ministry of Health has already decided to postpone non-urgent scheduled surgeries starting Jan. 4 to manage pressure on hospitals, and said the impacts of COVID-19 will determine how operations are rescheduled in the new year.

Henry pointed to Quebec, which has seen COVID-19 hospitalizations surge from 268 to 415 – an increase of about 55 per cent – over just nine days, while skyrocketing case numbers have repeatedly broken all-time records.

The provincial health officer said B.C. is about a week to 10 days behind that province in terms of Omicron's spread – and local transmission is already increasing at an alarming rate.

B.C. recorded 2,550 cases of COVID-19 over the weekend, pushing its seven-day average to 742 per day, double what it was just nine days earlier.

Modelling data shared Tuesday afternoon shows Omicron has already surpassed Delta as the most commonly identified variant in the province, making up about 70 per cent of sequenced specimens in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

The COVID-19 reproductive rate in that region has jumped to 2.17 over the last week, meaning each new case spreads to just over two additional people, on average. Very recently, Vancouver Coastal was recording some of the lowest case numbers of the province, per capita, with a reproductive rate below 1.0.

While the impacts of Omicron's various mutations are still being determined, Henry said the variant appears to have significant immune evasion – meaning it has an easier time re-infecting people who caught COVID-19 previously, as well as those who are fully immunized.

"It's still a magnitude difference from people who don't have the protection that vaccine offers," Henry added, noting that the only significant increase in hospitalizations recorded in B.C. so far has been among the unvaccinated.

The variant also appears to have a shorter incubation period, giving contact tracers less time to notify an infected individual's friends, family and coworkers after exposure incidents. Officials said this has contributed to "explosive outbreaks," as the virus spreads faster than public health staff can mount a response.

The biggest spikes in transmission so far have been found in major urban settings among people between the ages of 19 and 59, likely because that age group generally has more social and professional contacts, Henry said.

The sudden arrival and fast spread of Omicron has been an unexpected blow to exhausted residents hoping to enjoy a worry-free holiday, but health officials pleaded with the public to take the variant seriously and do what they can to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.

That means staying home while sick, following the restrictions announced Tuesday and the ones implemented Monday, and getting a booster shot as soon as eligible.

"It is about buying us time to understand and to prepare," Henry said. "The consequences of not slowing things down, of not taking these actions, are just too dire." Top Stories

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