British Columbia’s top doctor has urged residents to avoid all non-essential international travel, including to the United States, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I think this is really important. It is clear at this time that the evolving situation both in the United States and globally is a risk for all of us, and we are strongly advising people not to travel,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry at a news conference on Thursday in Victoria.
Henry said the decision came in part after consultation with the government in Quebec, where some people returning home from spring break tested positive for COVID-19.
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Anyone who travels outside Canada will need to stay away from school or work for 14 days upon return, Health Minister Adrian Dix told the news conference, adding that people in the Lower Mainland should no longer be hopping the border for a quart of milk.
“It’s our expectation that should people go to the United States for something so important, that they would choose to self-isolate when they come back,” he said.
Henry has also directed event organizers to cancel any gatherings larger than 250 people.
“It is a number we think has some rationale to it, in that over that large group, it’s really challenging to put into place those social distancing measures that protect people and prevent transmission of respiratory infections,” she said.
“We are looking at event organizers — whether it’s community events, whether it’s large events — to look at alternatives they can use to keep that connectedness and social cohesiveness.”
The measures are needed to “flatten the curve” of new infections, Henry said, and to prevent health-care facilities from being overwhelmed.
She said with the scale of global transmission, it’s now up to individuals to wash their hands and stay away from others in order to protect those who are vulnerable.
“We talked last week about an all-of-government approach,” said Henry.
“We need now an all-of-society approach because we cannot stop all of the transmissions into our province, and it’s unlikely that we will catch all of them.”
Schools to remain open
While organizers are being told to scrap mass gatherings, officials said the province is not ready to cancel school.
“We feel it’s appropriate for schools to remain open now, but we are going to use spring break … to consult with stakeholders and decide the appropriate policies and procedures that should occur for students and for staff when they return,” said Dix.
Henry said officials still believe measures can be taken in schools to keep young people safe and teach them about proper hygiene and social distancing measures such as avoiding hugs and handshakes.
She added that abruptly closing schools could come with social and economic disruptions.
Dix said provincial health authorities were working on new COVID-19 testing centres, with details to be announced in the coming days. Anyone feeling they need to be tested will be able to call Healthlink 811 to call and book a test.
Dix acknowledged the 811 system has been under immense pressure, answering nearly 3,800 calls on Wednesday alone.
“Obviously there was more demand than that, but we are working hard to deal with even higher call volumes by adding resources,” he said. “I know this can be frustrating for people. We ask them to be patient.”
Anyone who is showing symptoms is still asked to self-isolate and always call their doctor or 811 before going in to a health-care facility.
Seven new cases
The directions come as the province announces seven new cases of the novel coronavirus, bringing B.C.’s total to 53.
Henry said one of the new cases is an instance of community transmission.
B.C. has also identified an outbreak in a second long-term care facility, Hollyburn House in West Vancouver.
Officials say a 90 year old resident and two health-care workers at the facility have tested positive.
The two workers are also linked to the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, a long-term care centre with a previously identified outbreak.
Officials have yet to determine how the infection got into the facilities.
Several of the new cases are related to travel one man who travelled to the UK, and a couple who travelled to Egypt.
Vancouver sportswear giant Lululemon confirmed Thursday that one of its employees had tested positive for the virus.
The company said it was doing a deep-clean and is implementing a work-from-home policy until March 20.
13 of B.C.’s cases are linked to the Lynn Valley Care Centre and Hollyburn house.
Six of B.C.’s known cases were transmitted through the community and have unknown sources.
Of B.C.’s identified cases, 28 are in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, 23 are in the Fraser Health region, and there are one in each of the Interior and Island health regions.
Six people have now fully recovered from the virus in B.C.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of novel coronavirus a pandemic.
At least 138 cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Canada.
Major sports leagues including the NHL, NBA and MLS have suspended their seasons until further notice, and a number of major events in B.C. have been cancelled or postponed.
The United States has also suspended travel for non-citizens from continental Europe.
Canada has yet to restrict entry through its borders, but is asking travellers from China’s Wuhan province, Iran, and Italy to self-isolate for 14 days.