VANCOUVER -- British Columbia has identified another 840 cases of COVID-19, pushing the province's active caseload past 7,000 for the first time since early January.

The latest infections also brought B.C.'s rolling weekly average to 826 per day, the highest it's been so far in the pandemic.

In a joint written statement, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix cautioned the province is seeing "the start of exponential growth" in COVID-19 cases.

"We are asking people for your help - particularly over the next three weeks - to push our curve back down again. This means staying small, staying outside and staying with our same group of close contacts," they said.

The alarming surge in infections also prompted officials to impose a slew of new restrictions on Monday, including a ban on indoor dining at restaurants that will remain in place until April 19.

B.C. has now recorded a total of 99,035 cases of COVID-19 and 1,455 related deaths. Henry and Dix did not have any new fatalities to report on Tuesday.

But the number of coronavirus patients in hospital has increased to 312, the highest it's been since Jan. 26, with 78 people in intensive care.

Health officials also announced another 320 confirmed COVID-19 cases involving variants of concern, bringing the provincial total to 2,553. Of those, 313 cases remain active.

The faster-spreading B.1.1.7 variant associated with the U.K. accounts for the vast majority of cases, at 2,134. Henry has recently pointed to emerging evidence that B.1.1.7 is also more likely to cause serious illness in all age groups.

Meanwhile, the province's accelerated vaccination program has been continuing, providing protection to tens of thousands of B.C. residents per day. Another 25,101 doses have been administered since Monday's update, for a total of 724,193. That includes 636,874 first doses – about enough to immunize 12 per cent of residents – and 87,319 second doses.

Vaccine supplies have allowed the government to speed up its age-based vaccination schedule, and on Tuesday officials revealed they were doing so once again, though only in the Lower Mainland.

Beginning on Wednesday, people in that region who are between the ages of 55 and 65 will be able to book an appointment to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine at their local pharmacy, officials said.

Across the province, anyone 73 and older and Indigenous peoples over the age of 18 can schedule a vaccination.

B.C. recently paused the use of AstraZeneca for anyone younger than 55, citing concerns from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization about rare blood clots, but Henry encouraged older people to take advantage of the supply.

"We know from the millions of doses used worldwide, and especially in the U.K., it is highly effective and the benefits to those over age 55 far outweigh the very real risks of getting COVID-19," Henry said.

With the Easter long weekend coming up, health officials urged British Columbians to postpone family dinners and travel until it's safe to do so.