British Columbia confirmed four new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday bringing the total in the province to 12.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said three of the patients had recently returned from Iran.
One patient is a man in his 50s, one is a man in his 60s and one is an adult woman. The province has limited information on the woman’s case.
The fourth new case is a woman in her 30s who was a close family contact of a previously identified B.C. case, also linked to Iran.
All of the new patients are in isolation.
“At least one of them went to an emergency department where they were tested. One of them was in isolation already,” Dr. Henry said.
“I think it’s a reflection of the work we do in public health. We want people that had an exposure to be in isolation so they can be assessed and tested.”
B.C. announced the first new case Tuesday morning, but scheduled a second media event Tuesday afternoon to announce the three additional cases.
There has been no documented community spread of the virus in B.C., with all known cases being recent returnees from Iran or China or their close contacts. Four have since completely recovered.
Dr. Henry was quick to point out the four new cases announced on Tuesday should not lead to panic.
“It’s more a reflection of awareness and the fact more people are going for testing. I think it was a shock for all of us where it wasn’t recognized Iran was a place where there had been transmission and clearly it’s now apparent that there is quite a lot of transmissions,” Dr. Henry said.
“We put the message out a week ago about people in that community who have come back from Iran to be very vigilant.”
But with the spread of the virus growing globally and next door in Washington state, Henry said it was incumbent on individuals and businesses to begin preparing for the possibility of wider spread in B.C.
“This is an extraordinary time, it’s not just our usual influenza season, we know that things are changing,” she said.
“We know that we all have to be aware of even mild respiratory symptoms.”
The coronavirus death toll in Washington state climbed to nine on Tuesday, most of them clustered around Seattle in King County.
The state has confirmed 27 cases, a number of them who had contracted the virus through an unknown vector.
Henry said B.C. still believes the risk of community transmission from the province’s southern border remains low, but said border agents — who are also trained as quarantine agents — would be providing additional information to travellers on what to do if they feel ill.
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The Canada Border Services Agency said Tuesday that there were no additional measures in place at B.C.’s land borders, but that “standard operating procedures with respect to screening travellers for infectious diseases still apply at all ports of entry.”
However Henry said there were no plans to close the border or restrict travel, saying the best way to tackle the virus remains asking people to self-identify if they have symptoms.
“We look at the United States, we look at Italy, for example, both countries who had bans on people coming into the country from certain other countries,” she said.
“Those don’t work. What works is awareness, understanding, asking people to do the right thing. And we find people for the most part do.”
B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix has ruled out any funding for businesses impacted by the virus or for workers without the access to sick days. But says he hopes employers are compassionate and communities need to battle the virus together.
“Clearly our advice continues to be people wash their hands, don’t touch their face, if they are sick do not go to school, if they are sick do not go to work. We understand it is difficult to self isolate, but it is necessary,” Dix said.
“We are hoping will be compassionate and supportive with one and other. This has to be a collective effort.”
People entering from China or Iran are also being asked to self-isolate for 14 days.
Keeping yourself and your neighbours safe
While health officials believe the risk of virus transmission is low, Henry said Tuesday said it is now incumbent on individuals and businesses to take precautions to keep themselves and others safe.
Health officials have repeatedly stressed that the best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus or influenza remains to wash hands your frequently, avoid touching your face, and to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
“Wash your hands like you’ve been chopping jalapeños and you need to change your contacts,” said Henry.
“It’s OK right now to not shake hands, to not kiss, to not hug when you are greeting people, it’s OK to say I’m going to keep my germs to myself.”
Businesses are being asked to have hand hygiene products available for customers and staff, and to talk to staff about staying home if they’re feeling ill.
She added that companies that are able to support it should also investigate allowing employees to work remotely.
Henry also addressed a run on big box stores over the weekend, with people stockpiling goods out of concern of an outbreak.
“It doesn’t mean we need to go out and stockpile things, but it does mean we need to take a look at what we have in our house,” said Henry.
“Do we have the medication we need, do we have contacts with friends and others that can assist us if we need to stay home?”
Henry added that anyone who believes they are showing COVID-19 symptoms should phone ahead before going to a clinic or hospital so that health officials can take precautions to prevent possible spread.
She said B.C. remains confident in its protocol for testing for the virus, one health officials have repeatedly described as “low threshold.”
Henry said Tuesday that the vast majority of people who had been tested were people who had recently travelled to a known virus hotspot, but that health care practitioners also have discretion on when to test.
She credited that low barrier for testing with identifying B.C.’s first case from Iran, which was caught before the extent of the outbreak in that country was known.
“We have always said that if a clinician has concerns about somebody and they have symptoms that could be COVID-19 that we would allow that testing to happen because it was our validation if you will of a clinician’s concerns in a community,” said Henry.
Finance Minister Carole James said the province was watching the situation closely but it was too early to say how seriously the virus would affect B.C.’s economy.
“There is no question that it will have an impact on us, we’re a small open economy, and anything that buffets from the outside is going to have an impact on British Columbia.”
With files from the Associated Press