Health Minister Adrian Dix says British Columbia “will be tested in the coming weeks” as an outbreak of COVID-19 across the border in Washington state grows.
As of Monday, six people had died of the virus in Washington, where a state of emergency is in effect.
“We have profound connections … both individual and family and community and business with Washington state. Obviously our hearts go out to them,” said Dix.
“It’s why we’ve been testing so many people in British Columbia, it’s in order to track down, to isolate, to slow down the impact here in B.C.”
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) officers are trained as quarantine officers, and will be screening travellers at the land borders.
“There’s not a formal process like we have for people who are coming in from Iran or whatever, but it is a program where there’s enhanced awareness and messaging,” she said.
That process for screening travellers from Iran is also being enhanced, Henry said. Like passengers from China, asymptomatic travellers arriving from Iran will be asked to self-isolate for 14 days, while travellers showing symptoms could be quarantined she said.
Henry went on to say that despite the growing outbreak across the border in Washington, B.C. remains focused on containment and is confident the virus is not being transmitted person to person in the province.
“They have some cases now that have arisen in the community where they do not yet know where the link is, how they became infected, that’s a challenging situation to be in,” Henry said.
“There’s not widespread community transmission in Washington state, and certainly not here in B.C. and we’re confident in that.”
B.C. remains at eight confirmed cases of COVID-19, and has tested more than 1,000 people for the virus. Four of those patients have fully recovered.
Henry said the province had broadened its testing criteria to include people who are in hospital for respiratory issues but have tested negative for influenza.
She said the province’s lab network that tests for influenza outbreaks has also been tasked with screening samples for COVID-19.
At least two of the deaths in Washington have been linked to a nursing home in Kirkland.
More than 10 schools in the Seattle area were closed for deep cleaning over virus concerns, although the city-county public health department said it was not yet recommending school closures or cancellation of activities.
The U.S. has now recorded more than 100 cases of the virus in 11 states, some of them returnees from the virus-riddled Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Infection stopped reporting how many people had been tested on Monday.
Dix and Henry’s comments came following a weekend of reports of people descending on big box stores to stockpile goods and non-perishable foods out of concern the virus could get worse.
Last week, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said people should consider stockpiling food and medicine in case of a potential outbreak of COVID-19, despite the relatively low risk of contracting the disease within Canada.
“I don’t think we’re at that stage yet,” said Dix, when asked if stockpiling supplies was necessary.
Kyle Belich, store manager of a Burnaby Super Valu supermarket, said business has been brisk, with people focusing on toilet paper, bottled water and dry goods.
“It’s crazy, it’s nuts,” he said.
Belich said his store was trying to order product to ensure it doesn’t miss out when larger outlets get restocked.
“If we don’t stock up now, places like Superstore and Walmart and Costco, they’re going to draw the main supply so the little guys like us sometimes we might get shorted just because it always goes to the big guys first.”
Chris Chiew, general manager of pharmacy for London Drugs said the chain has been out of stock of hand sanitizer, gloves and N95 masks since the coronavirus outbreak started.
“When that does come in, they do sell out immediately,” he said.
But he said the company was having no trouble keeping other items on the shelves.
“Our buyers have been really good at actually looking to make sure the stock levels are good at our distribution centre,” he said.
“When we do see an increase in sales at a particular store, they will increase the amount being sent to that store so they’re not out of stock.”
On Monday, the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education said it was postponing a March conference in Vancouver amid concerns about possible spread of the virus.
The event was expected to draw about 2,500 people.
Vancouver’s Rugby Sevens tournament scheduled for next weekend at BC Place will go ahead as planned.
Dix said as of Monday, containment of the virus remains the province’s top priority, though wider pandemic planning is ongoing in the background.
He said the province is encouraging anyone who feels they may have been exposed to the virus to contact their health care provider, and that officials remain focused on back-tracing possible contacts and isolating anyone who may have been exposed.
But he said the biggest piece of the response will remain in the hands of B.C. residents.
“It sounds like we’re repeating ourselves,” he said.
— With files from John Hua and the Canadian Press