Health officials in B.C. have introduced more restrictions for the northern part of the province in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Starting at midnight, personal indoor and outdoor gatherings will be restricted to fully vaccinated people only, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced Thursday during a live news conference.
Indoor restrictions will continue to be limited to five people, and outdoor gatherings will be capped at 25 people.
In making the announcement, Henry exempted an area west of Kitwanga, including Terrace, where she said the vaccination rate was substantially higher.
She said organized events, including weddings, will require a COVID-19 safety plan, everyone must wear masks and attendees must be fully vaccinated.
Indoor organized events are limited to 50 people, but outdoor organized events can have up to 100 people in attendance.
Worship services are being limited to virtual services. Single-person services where people can have quiet reflection alone are permitted.
Restaurants will continue to allow indoor dining with the use of the vaccine card. However, alcohol service will end at 10 p.m.
Bars and nightclubs will be closed unless they are serving a full meal as well as alcohol.
Under the new public health orders, Henry says both indoor and outdoor sports are limited to 50 per cent capacity, attendees must wear masks, and a COVID-19 safety plan must be in place. Spectators must also show their proof-of-vaccination card.
Health officials are strongly recommending people stay in their community unless it is essential for work or medical reasons.
The restrictions will remain in place until Nov. 19, but may be extended if cases remain high and vaccination rates remain low.
“We are intending this circuit breaker to save lives,” Henry said. “To lower the rates of transmission, to allow our hospitalizations to stabilization and enable us all to come back together safely to celebrate during the upcoming holiday season — I hope.”
The province put a limit on gathering and event sizes in the region in early September as a result of rising cases and introduced a provincewide mask mandate on Aug. 24.
The B.C. vaccine card program came into effect last month requiring anyone aged 12 and over who wants to access a range of non-essential indoor settings to show proof of at least one dose of vaccine. As of Oct. 24, people will be required to have two doses of vaccine to access those services.
Even so, cases in the north continue to climb. On Thursday, the Ministry of Health reported 129 new cases of COVID-19 in the Northern Health region, the second highest number in the province. There are 677 active cases in the region.
On Thursday, Henry announced a person in the region in their 20s had died of COVID-19.
Outbreaks have been declared at the University Hospital of Northern B.C. in Prince George and at Wrinch Memorial Hospital in Hazelton.
A total of 58 critical care patients have been transferred out of northern B.C. to hospitals in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island in order to keep beds in the north free. The majority of those transferred have been seriously ill with COVID, she said.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said there are 40 critical care beds in the north, and a further 23 surgical beds were added to support the need for space for critical care patients.
“We are all in. We have thrown everything in but the kitchen sink and the kitchen sink went in a week ago,” he said.
“We also need to ask people in the north to do more.”
Earlier this week health officials expressed concern about the rising case numbers in communities across the north, and Henry suggested then that additional measures for the region were being considered.
“We are in a very different situation than we were in even a few months ago,” Henry said, pointing to the delta variant, which spreads faster and more easily, and causes more severe illness in young people.
Although vaccination rates are increasing in the north, they remain lower than the rest of the province; B.C.’s northeast is the only part of the province where less than 60 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
Just 53 per cent of those living in Peace River South have been vaccinated compared to 83 per cent for the province as a whole.
Henry said it’s unvaccinated people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are getting severely ill from COVID-19 and dying.
Dix encourages people from all demographics to get vaccinated.
“We need to continue to raise those vaccination levels, if we do that we can significantly improve the situation,” he said.
British Columbians aged 12 and over who have not yet been immunized can register in three ways:
Dix said that if there is increased demand for vaccination, the ministry will meet that demand.
“We are committed to supporting the north every day,” Dix said. “We need to take steps together to reduce transmission in the north.”