Health officials in the Washington state county where the coronavirus has killed nine people are asking at-risk residents to avoid public areas and large gatherings where possible, marking a harsher language from those looking to limit the spread of the disease.
But one expert says those same measures could soon come to Canada if the outbreak continues north of the border — particularly if the cases here turn fatal.
Seattle and King County public health officials said Wednesday that people 60 years of age or older, people with underlying health conditions like diabetes, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
Those people should stay home and away from large groups of people and public places where those other groups gather, and consider postponing events and gatherings that bring large groups together, officials say.
“This is a critical moment in the growing outbreak of COVID-19 in King County and these measures can potentially impact the spread of the disease,” a statement on the county’s public health blog reads.
Officials are also recommending workplaces do what they can to allow people to work from home if possible.
At-risk people would also avoid visiting hospitals, long-term care facilities and nursing homes, the statement adds.
The Life Care Center nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland has become the epicentre of the state’s coronavirus cases. Six of the nine deaths reported in the county — including the latest reported Wednesday — were residents there or were otherwise connected to the facility.
A 10th death has been reported in Washington state, in the Snohomish County area, which sits directly north of King County.
A total of at least 39 cases have been reported in the larger Seattle area, where researchers say the virus may have been circulating undetected for weeks. Eighteen of those cases are connected to Life Care.
Investigators from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be inspecting the facility to figure out what happened and determine whether the nursing home followed guidelines for preventing infections.
Will stronger language come to Canada?
In Canada, the risk right now is relatively low compared to Washington state and California, which reported its first death from COVID-19 Wednesday and has confirmed 52 other cases.
No fatal cases have been reported in Canada, although B.C. on Wednesday announced its latest case, a woman in her 80s with pre-existing conditions, is in critical condition in hospital.
The other 33 cases throughout B.C., Ontario and Quebec are all linked to travel or previously confirmed cases, not so-called “community spread” or unknown origin like many of those in Washington state, Oregon and California.
Dr. Stephen Hoption Cann, a clinical professor in the School of Population & Public Health at the University of British Columbia, says once that happens, Canada can expect similar recommendations like those issued by King County.
“Once it becomes entrenched within the community, you have to start testing everybody or making sure that anybody who has symptoms self-isolates,” he said.
“When a disease becomes entrenched within a community, then you’re affecting rich and poor, young and old, healthy and unhealthy. Everybody gets exposed. And that includes people that we know are vulnerable to very poor outcomes with this infection.”
Hoption Cann says while local measures could be effective in slowing the spread of the virus, it’s now up to the U.S. as a whole through federal units like the CDC to broaden testing to anyone with flu-like symptoms and determine where cases are coming from.
He pointed out other countries that are seeing outbreaks, like Italy, have taken even more extreme measures like closing schools and universities, while the U.S. has not gone that far.
King County officials said they won’t order school closures until a case is reported in one, but several school districts in the state have taken that step, including in Snohomish County.
But Hoption Cann says with no one definitively sure how to stop the spread of this new disease, every measure announced will be a shot in the dark until results can be seen.
“We’re kind of dipping into unknown territory and looking at the best way to control this,” he said, adding the new information being received daily will surely change everyone’s plans constantly.
“You also have to balance the economic decline that goes hand-in-hand with containing the infection. There’s huge financial implications to communities with some of these measures. So we’ll have to wait and see.”