VANCOUVER — Health officials in British Columbia are advising against all non-essential travel outside of Canada including to the United States as COVID-19 continues its global spread.
The announcement came Thursday as provincial cases reached 53 and several major events were cancelled across British Columbia, while local officials and service providers said they have preparedness plans in place even as the risk of transmission remains low.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said anyone who chooses to travel outside of Canada will be required to stay away from work or school for 14 days upon their return.
"While it hasn't changed a lot here in B.C., the risk has increased all around us, I would say, and our understanding of the situation has also changed," she said.
Henry told a news conference in Victoria that the situation is "too risky" at the moment, while adding she has "full confidence" the spread of the coronavirus will come under control.
Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix also called for organizers to cancel events for 250 people or more, but held off on extending the cancellation to schools, noting that abrupt school closures can cause societal disruption and economic impacts.
Officials will consult during the spring break to determine appropriate policies and procedures, Dix said.
"These are measures for now, they're not forever," Henry said. "These are things that we think are incredibly important for all of us in society to think about ways to stop the spread."
Officials made the announcements as the province recorded seven new cases of COVID-19. Henry said six people have fully recovered.
Three of the new cases were identified at a retirement home in West Vancouver, marking the spread of the novel coronavirus to a second care home in British Columbia.
Henry said officials suspected an influenza outbreak at Hollyburn House but testing revealed two health-care workers at the home and one resident have COVID-19.
The same health-care workers are also linked to Lynn Valley Care Centre, where an outbreak has affected six other health-care workers and two residents.
"We do have many people who work at many facilities," she said.
Dr. Rhonda Collins, chief medical officer for Hollyburn's owner-operator Revera Living, said in a statement the care-unit resident has been isolated and is receiving care.
Revera Living has implemented full pandemic protocols across its Canadian operations and began active screening at its British Columbia locations this past weekend, she said.
"We remain vigilant in our efforts and are doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of our residents, families, employees, volunteers, suppliers, service providers and all other visitors," Collins said in the statement.
Canada has recorded a single death — an elderly Lynn Valley resident — among the confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19, which mostly produces mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Public health authorities warn that for people aged 65 and over or with compromised immune systems, the illness can be more severe.
A domino of event cancellations across the country also hit British Columbia on Thursday. The world women's curling championship in Prince George won't begin this weekend as scheduled and organizers of the Surrey Vaisakhi parade, which draws more than 500,000 people each year, cancelled the April 25 event.
Others emphasized preparedness. The city of Vancouver said the risk of transmitting COVID-19 locally remains low but it is adjusting the response based on updated advice from public health officials.
City manager Sadhu Johnston said no restrictions are being placed on public events at municipal facilities or in the community at this time, but it is monitoring the situation.
City officials have also activated the Emergency Operations Centre and are making plans to ensure they can maintain core services, such as water, sewers, police and fire.
A group that feeds and shelters some of Metro Vancouver's most vulnerable residents also said there's no sign of the novel coronavirus in the homeless community, but it's still launching a preparedness plan.
A statement from the Union Gospel Mission said its clients would be among the "hardest hit" if a widespread outbreak happens in Metro Vancouver.
Spokesman Jeremy Hunka said the organization's six-phase pandemic plan was created in 2009 as a response to the H1N1 flu outbreak.
He said some measures have been put in place, including the creation of an emergency management team and stepping up sanitation and education.
Tours of organization's facilities are also to be stopped and further steps could include suspending or changing some non-essential services, such as offering hot meals to go rather than serving them in a cafeteria.
The Union Gospel Mission, which has seven locations in Metro Vancouver and Mission, provides everything from emergency shelters to meals, counselling, addiction recovery and career development.
Hunka said the organization wants to be ready to help those already at risk.
"While there are more cases locally and a pandemic has now been declared, B.C. numbers (of COVID-19) are still quite low in Metro Vancouver compared to other parts of the world," Hunka said in the statement Thursday.
"We want to be responsive and prepared in case of an emergency, and also wise and impactful."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2020
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press