British Columbia

18 cases of new COVID-19 variants have been detected in B.C.

A total of 18 people have been identified with infections of new variants of the novel coronavirus in B.C., an issue that Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says is one of the most concerning facing the province right now.

Health officials announce 1,158 more cases confirmed over the last three days and 21 more deaths

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has asked people to do more, including avoiding all non-essential travel, to reduce the spread of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A total of 18 people have been identified with infections of new variants of the novel coronavirus in B.C., an issue that Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says is one of the most concerning facing the province right now.

During Monday's daily briefing, Henry said that 14 cases of the variant first reported in the U.K. have been confirmed here, along with four of the variant from South Africa.

She pointed out that Ontario is starting to see community transmission of the new variants, and B.C. health officials are stepping up surveillance to track the spread of these more infectious versions.

"This is one of the things that is factoring into all of the decisions that we have to make together over the coming weeks," Henry said.

Monday's update is the first since Friday.

Henry said B.C. health officials have confirmed 1,158 more cases of COVID-19 over the last three days and another 21 people have died.

There are now 4,134 active cases of the novel coronavirus in B.C. Of those, 289 patients are in hospital, including 79 in critical care.

There has been one new outbreak in a long-term care home. There are currently 24 active outbreaks in long-term care and assisted living, and eight in hospitals.

To date, there have been 67,937 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in B.C. and 1,210 people have died. A total of 7,242 people are in isolation and being monitored by public health workers because of close contact with known cases.

Henry acknowledged that B.C. has limited supplies of vaccines to start the month of February, but more of the Moderna product is expected by the end of the week. 

"We hope and we've been told we are increasing our supply," she said.

So far, 138,892 people have received their first dose of a vaccine, including 4,491 who have received a second dose.

Henry noted that the Super Bowl is coming up this weekend, followed by Lunar New Year and Family Day. She said that even though there will be a temptation to get together or travel to mark these occasions, everyone needs to follow public health advice and orders. 

That means no parties, no socializing with anyone outside of your household and no travelling.

But she noted that bigger celebrations might be possible in time for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs in July.

"We will be in a different place in July, I hope," she said.

Maple Ridge students tested for exposure to new variant

During Monday's briefing, Henry addressed the news that a student who attends Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge has tested positive for COVID-19 and is a close contact of someone who tested positive for one of the new variants of concern.

She said her team is working with Fraser Health to test everyone who's in the student's cohort at Garibaldi. That means about 80 people will be screened through rapid testing as well as a PCR test.

The province has recently ramped up screening for the faster-spreading coronavirus variants of concern.

Henry said health officials are screening through random sampling at places like St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, targeting travellers arriving in B.C. and targeting other specific groups that may have higher chances of exposure.

Despite a high level of concern about the spread of these recent variants, there was hopeful news in Monday's briefing.

The weekly average of COVID-19 deaths is now at the lowest level in two months, and the average number of new cases reported each day is started to trend downward again after stalling out in recent weeks.

And, as Health Minister Adrian Dix pointed out, there has been a "significant reduction" in the number of active outbreaks in long-term care and assisted living. On Jan. 15, there were 49 — two weeks later, that number has been cut in half.

Vancouver party 'offensive,' Henry says

Over the weekend, a 42-year-old man in Vancouver was arrested and charged for allegedly hosting a large party in a three-level penthouse in the city's downtown.

Police issued $17,000 in fines to 77 people for contravening health orders and said the penthouse operation appeared to be running as a nightclub.

No one inside the three-storey apartment was wearing a mask, according to police.

Henry said Monday that it's not her role to determine how people who defy public health orders should be treated by the justice system, but "I do think it was offensive that that was happening."

She also noted that inspectors from WorkSafeBC and Vancouver Coastal Health spent time in Whistler this weekend in an attempt to get a handle on the surge in cases in the resort community.

Henry said restaurants and bars in Whistler have good safety plans in place, but there are challenges later in the night when staff have trouble trying to stop people from congregating.

"We know that that's where this virus can be transmitted," she said.

To date, inspectors with WorkSafeBC have found more than 1,600 violations of COVID-19 health and safety plans in workplaces across the province, according to the agency. 

The number has more than doubled since July, when the agency had issued just 334 orders. 

This weekend, Vancouver Coastal Health started offering COVID-19 vaccines to vulnerable residents on the Downtown Eastside as part of Phase 2 of its immunization plan. 

With files from Andrea Ross