VICTORIA -- Health officials have identified 41 more cases of COVID-19 in the Vancouver Island region Thursday, as the province announced changes to restrictions on outdoor social gatherings.

The new cases were among 569 found across the province over the past 24 hours.

Three more people have died of COVID-19 in B.C., health officials said, bringing the province's death toll to 1,397. No deaths were reported on Vancouver Island, where the death toll remains at 28.

The Island Health region has now recorded 2,654 cases of the virus since the pandemic began. Some 251 of the cases are currently considered active, including seven people in hospital and one person in critical care.

The health authority revealed the locations of 219 active cases Thursday, including 112 in the Central Island, 65 in the South Island and 42 in the North Island. 

Easing restrictions 

On Thursday afternoon, B.C.'s top doctor announced an amendment to the province's restrictions on outdoor gatherings.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that people can now meet in groups of up to 10 people while outdoors, so long as the group of 10 people remains consistent. This includes areas like parks or personal backyards.

"This means your children can have a playdate with your friends over the March break, but with your same group of friends," said Henry.

"You can meet with friends outside, have a chat, have a connection, have a picnic in the park with your grandparents," she said.

However, Henry cautioned that the province's health guidelines remain in effect, such as staying six feet apart, wearing masks, and not sharing food or drinks.

She also stressed that indoor social gatherings are still prohibited, and noted that all other health restrictions around businesses, restaurants and bars remain in place.

"No dinner parties," she said. "Don't ask your favourite restaurant to host a special event for you."

Meanwhile, the province is issuing a one-day restriction around alcohol sales at restaurants and bars on St. Patrick's Day. Alcohol sales must stop at eateries and bars at 8 p.m. on March 17.

"This is slowly turning the dial, it's not flicking the switch," Henry said of the province's reopening plans.

Modelling updates

On Thursday, Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix provided a COVID-19 modelling update.

The update provided promising information on the province's vaccine roll out plan.

Health officials estimate that the number of COVID-19 cases in long-term care and assisted living facilities dropped by as much as 80 per cent three weeks after most residents and workers in the system were vaccinated.

Meanwhile, modelling suggests that Island Health's COVID-19 reproductive rate, or R rate, is below 1, meaning that people are likely spreading the virus to less than one person on average.

Island Health's R rate is currently the lowest in the province, though all health authorities remain close to the R 1 threshold.

B.C.'s top doctor says the province weathered its largest spike of COVID-19 cases in early December. Cases declined in late December before rising again in early January following holidays like Christmas and New Year's Day.

Later in January, the province saw a decline again, until a rise began to appear in mid-February.

Henry says that the province is still in the midst of that upswing in new cases. However, she notes that the number of hospitalizations has remained steady and relatively low compared to new cases, despite a rise in transmission.

"Those curves are starting to separate," she said.

Thursday marked one full year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.

Henry provided an emotional plea to all British Columbians to continue following health guidelines as the province continues to administer vaccines.

"It's been a challenging year for us all," she said, holding back tears. "But now is the time to redouble our efforts and remember to be kind to each other, because that is what makes the difference."

B.C.'s health minister echoed Henry's thoughts and thanked British Columbians for persevering over the past 365 days. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," Dix said.