VANCOUVER -- For the second time in a week, health officials in British Columbia had no new deaths related to COVID-19 to report on Tuesday.

The province has credited the widespread vaccination of vulnerable seniors living in care homes for the declining number of deaths in recent weeks – although they have also pointed out that the vaccine does not guarantee against outbreaks in those settings.

"We are all excited to get our COVID-19 vaccine, as not only do they provide protection, but also bring hope and renewal for all of us," provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a joint written statement.

"The vaccines are protecting more and more seniors and Elders. They are also helping break the chains of transmission in our communities where we continue to see outbreaks and spread. This is critical to our pandemic response."

Meanwhile, B.C. is still seeing a slow uptick in COVID-19 infections. Officials announced 556 new cases on Tuesday, pushing the province's seven-day average to 544 per day – the highest it's been since Jan. 13.

British Columbia has now recorded a total of 88,929 infections and 1,407 related deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The province's active caseload has been hovering around 5,000 for days as the number of patients in hospital has been creeping up. Health officials said there were 280 people hospitalized Tuesday – the most B.C. has seen since Feb. 2 – with 84 people in intensive care.

Cases involving variants of concern are also steadily increasing in numbers. Henry and Dix announced another 116 confirmed variant cases Tuesday, bringing the provincial total to 996, 130 of which remain active.

The B.1.1.7 variant associated with the U.K. accounts for the vast majority of variant cases, at 921. The province has also confirmed 41 cases of the B.1.351 variant discovered in South Africa and 34 cases of the P.1 variant associated with Brazil.

The province's vaccination rollout is chugging along with another 15,414 doses administered since the last update on Monday, for a total of 424,517 so far.

That includes 337,447 first doses, enough to vaccinate about 6.5 per cent of B.C.'s population, and 87,070 second doses.

Last week, health officials said the continuing immunization program and warming weather allowed B.C. to loosen some of the tough COVID-19 restrictions that had been in place since November, but Henry and Dix have stressed the need to "achieve the right balance – moving slowly to ensure we don't give the virus the opportunity to surge."

They said that's especially important to remember this Wednesday on St. Patrick's Day, when the provincial health officer has ordered that restaurants, pubs and liquor stores stop selling alcohol at 8 p.m. Henry and Dix said this measure is intended to "protect our businesses and the people who work in them."

"This is a time of hope for all of us - a time when we can start to look forward, knowing brighter days are ahead. As we do, let's ensure we are also keeping to few faces, open spaces and with all of our safety layers in place," they said.