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COVID-19: B.C. hopeful virus can be contained, but preparing for possible pandemic

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WATCH: B.C. announces 7th case of COVID-19 (Feb. 24) – Feb 24, 2020

Health officials in British Columbia say they’re still optimistic COVID-19 can be contained, but are preparing for the possibility that it becomes a full-blown pandemic.

“We are, of course, hoping for the best, but we are preparing for all circumstances in the province,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said despite growing international transmission of the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) hasn’t officially declared a pandemic.

READ MORE: Seventh case of COVID-19 diagnosed in B.C.

That declaration would set off a major change in the way officials respond to the virus, from containing it to mitigating its effects, Henry said.

“They believe, and I believe as well, that we still have that window of opportunity to try and contain this, not only here in B.C. and in Canada but globally,” said Henry.

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“But we are well aware that the global situation is really changing, and we’ve seen now 39 countries that have had active cases.”

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The comments come the same day the U.S. Centre for Disease Control alerted the public to begin preparing for the spread of COVID-19 in the United States.

An outbreak in Italy is also building steam, with 322 confirmed cases and 10 deaths, while in South Korea around 900 cases have been confirmed.

Henry said in China, however, the number of new cases has begun to drop and WHO officials have confirmed the outbreak in the country peaked in early February.

READ MORE: Can the new coronavirus still be contained? Experts are divided

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Henry said while the province was still hopeful widespread transmission in Canada could be headed off, public health officials are now working in the background to prepare for the possibility of a wider outbreak in B.C.

She said that includes developing more intensive messaging and procedures for travellers entering Canada, making it clear that they are expected to self-monitor for symptoms of any illness, and telling them to call public health immediately if they have concerns.

Officials were also developing a community response which would include information on better sanitation in public places, asking people who are feeling sick to stay home from work and to stay away from big public gatherings, Henry said.

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She said public health workers were also looking at how to prepare businesses and communities for a potential outbreak, including how people might work from home or how businesses could manage in the case of widespread absenteeism.

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Officals are also looking at how to beef up existing responses to the spread of illnesses in schools.

READ MORE: Iran says 12 killed by coronavirus, rejecting reports of higher death toll

Dix said the province was still operating to contain the virus through a low threshold for testing, which he credited with helping identify and isolate the province’s seven confirmed cases so far.

He asked that people respect the privacy of those who have contracted the virus, noting that if people are afraid they’ll be singled out they may not come forward for testing.

“You may hear or have heard on social media alleged personal details about people involved,” said Dix.

“I just ask people, everyone, to exercise discretion and good judgment respecting their privacy allows for rest and recovery and it allows public health providers to do the work they need to do to keep everyone safe.”

Henry said Tuesday that the second, third and fourth cases of COVID-19 identified in B.C. ù a Lower Mainland woman and two family members visiting from Wuhan — were no longer showing symptoms, and that officials were waiting on tests to confirm they had fully recovered.

READ MORE: Italy tries to contain coronavirus outbreak as neighbours fear its spread

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The province’s fifth case, a woman from the Interior, has almost stopped showing symptoms, and will soon be ready for tests to clear her as well, Henry said.

The province’s two most recent cases, both linked to an outbreak in Iran, remain in isolation and are stable, she added.

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The most recent case was announced on Monday, and was a close contact of the sixth case, a woman who had travelled to Iran.

She said two other people who had travelled home from the virus-riddled Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked in Yokohama, Japan, were in federal quarantine in B.C.

The final British Columbians who were evacuated from Wuhan on a federally chartered flight have cleared quarantine at CFB Trenton, Henry said, and were due to begin returning to B.C. on Tuesday.

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