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B.C. health officials discouraging 'all non-essential travel' outside Canada
VANCOUVER -- With spring break days away, B.C. health officials say they are now discouraging "all non-essential travel" outside of Canada due to the growing COVID-19 outbreak.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made the announcement Thursday during her daily virus briefing, and stressed that the advice applies to trips to the United States.
"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," Henry said.
Anyone who travels abroad must stay home from work or school for 14 days upon their return to the province, according to health officials. While government cannot force people to follow this rule, officials said they expect people to follow it "as part of their civic duty."
Henry also said event organizers are being told to cancel all gatherings of 250 people or more, though officials are not asking schools in the province to close.
"We know that sometimes the impacts of closing schools - particularly abruptly - can cause a lot of societal disruption and economic impact, so we want to be doing that in a measured way," the provincial health officer said.
Henry said health officials and the provincial Ministry of Education will continue to evaluate the possibility of closing schools in the future. Students in B.C. are scheduled to begin their spring breaks at the end of the day Friday.
"We have a period of time where we can be thoughtful, we can investigate the issues around schools, we can talk with the stakeholders and make sure we know what is the best thing for us to do in the coming days to weeks as the situation continues to change around us," she said.
The recommendation to avoid travel and the cancellation of large gatherings reflect the changing nature of the situation around the world, Henry said.
"While (the risk) 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 said the decision to advise against all travel outside Canada came, in part, from consultations with health officials in Quebec, where school spring breaks recently ended and some travellers brought the virus home with them.
"While I have full confidence that it will come under control, the situation is just too risky right now, and for people who feel that that is a risk they're willing to take, that is their decision, but we need to be able to ensure that our schools and our workplaces remain safe here in British Columbia," Henry said.
The decision to require the cancellation of gatherings over 250 people follows similar measures taken in other jurisdictions.
Henry mentioned concerns about transmission at large gatherings, including at a dental conference in Vancouver earlier this month, as a rationale for capping gatherings at that limit.
"That was concerning to people even though the risk is very low," she said, in reference to the conference. "With the escalating risk of this community transmission, we have to do our best to slow COVID-19 infections here."
Henry said 250 people is "not scientific," but was chosen as the upper limit for gatherings because it can be difficult to achieve the necessary "social distancing" in groups larger than that.
She said event organizers should consider limiting attendance to a number below the 250-person threshold in order to ensure the ability to keep people separated by at least an arm's length, as well as the availability of hand sanitizer and hand-washing facilities.
"I have heard from many, many event organizers that us making this recommendation makes it much easier for them to take those measures that we need them to take to protect our health," Henry said.
In addition, officials announced seven new B.C. cases of COVID-19, bringing the provincial total to 53.
Three of the new cases are related to Hollyburn House, a seniors' care home in West Vancouver. Two are staff members – a man and woman in their 40s who are both in isolation at home – while the third is a man in his 90s who lives at the facility.
Both of the workers are also employed at Lynn Valley Care Centre in neighbouring North Vancouver, where Canada's first death from the virus occurred earlier this month.
Revera Inc., the owner and operator of Hollyburn House, said the cases were discovered through an "active screening process" that has been underway in B.C. since last weekend. That screening involves checking everyone entering the home for symptoms of the novel coronavirus and asking about their recent travel history.
The other four cases announced Thursday are not related to either care home, and are all located in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.
Three of those cases are travel-related. One is a man in his 40s who recently returned from the United Kingdom. Two more are a couple - a man and a woman - in their 40s who were recently on a tour in Egypt.
The last case announced Thursday is a man in his 50s. Officials are still working to determine where and how he contracted the virus.
Of B.C.'s 53 total cases, only one person is hospitalized, Henry said Thursday. That person, a woman in her 60s in the Fraser Health region, is in stable condition.
Henry also announced that two more of the people infected with the virus in B.C. have now recovered, bringing the total to six B.C. residents who have recovered from COVID-19.