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'We're in a different game': B.C. officials update Omicron guidance on Christmas Eve

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B.C.'s case and contact tracing efforts cannot keep up with the speed at which the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading, and the province's testing regimen is at its capacity, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday.

The province's top doctor provided updated guidance on the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in a news conference on Christmas Eve.

"What we are seeing across this country and across the globe is that Omicron is different," Henry said. "It is spreading in a way that is very different from previous variants."

Henry said the variant is infecting people more quickly and with less of the virus required to cause infection, and that has led to the overwhelming of the testing and contact tracing systems.

She stressed the need to prioritize testing for those who need it, and urged people to remember that a negative test is "not a green light" because of the speed at which the virus can spread.

"In a sense, we're in a different game," Henry said. "We're in a different pandemic now."

With that in mind, the provincial health officer said anyone who has any symptoms of COVID-19 should assume they have it and self-isolate for seven days if they are fully vaccinated, or 10 days if they have had fewer than two shots of a COVID-19 vaccine. People should not wait for a positive test to self-isolate, Henry said.

"If you are at all sick right now, even if you think it isn't COVID, even if you think it's just a mild cold or a flu, you need to take precautions and stay away from others," she said.

Henry said provincial contact tracers have also been overwhelmed in the latest wave, and she asked those who test positive for COVID-19 or are self-isolating because of suspected COVID-19 to inform others in their social circles about it.

"(Close contacts include) people you've spent time with - particularly indoors, in close proximity without wearing masks," Henry said. "They need to monitor for 14 days to check for symptoms themselves. Anybody who is unvaccinated who you've had close contact with, if you had symptoms or are positive for COVID, needs to stay away from others and monitor and self-isolate for 10 days."

Testing will continue to be available, but the province is targeting those who are at greatest risk of complications from COVID-19 - including people over age 65, those with compromised immune systems and those with severe symptoms - as well as frontline health-care workers.

The provincial health officer said testing centres have changed their procedures and are now prioritizing those groups. Others are being offered rapid tests, but Henry stressed that there's no need to get a test if you don't have symptoms, or if you have symptoms and you're not in a high-risk group.

"I want to be very clear," Henry said. "Do not go to a testing centre unless you have symptoms, and then, we need to preserve the more-accurate PCR testing for those who really need it. The testing centres are not for pre-travel screening, nor do they give you a green light to spend time with others."

If you have symptoms of COVID-19 and are self-isolating, and your symptoms do not clear up, do not hesitate to call 811 for health advice, or 911 if you need immediate medical attention, Henry said.

Friday marked the second time Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry took questions from reporters this week. On Tuesday, the pair announced a new round of public health restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Tuesday's announcement came a little more than 24 hours after a previous round of restrictions - announced last week - took effect.

In the meantime, B.C.'s coronavirus caseload has continued to soar. The province added 2,046 new infections to its total on Thursday, breaking its all-time record for daily cases for the third consecutive day. 

The rolling seven-day average for new cases also hit an all-time high Thursday, reaching 1,167. That record, too, is likely to keep climbing. B.C. would need to add just 790 cases on Friday to keep the rolling average rising.

The measures introduced Tuesday - including the closure of bars, nightclubs and gyms and the cancellation of all organized events such as wedding receptions - have been met with confusion and frustration by business owners in the affected industries. 

Critics have argued that the rules unfairly target the industries that have been forced to close, noting that seated venues - from restaurants to Rogers Arena - have been allowed to continue operating with reduced capacity, while bars and gyms have not.

Henry was asked about this criticism during Friday's news conference, and responded by saying the different rules reflect the different risks in each location.

Indoor spaces where people are exerting themselves, such as gyms, are "a qualitatively different situation" from retail stores - where customers pass through in relatively short spans of time - and restaurants and theatres - where people are seated and not mingling - Henry said. 

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