VANCOUVER -- As more than a quarter of Americans are now ordered to stay home for all but essential outings for food and medical care, British Columbia’s top doctor is turning down a growing chorus of calls to do the same in this province.

CTV News has been contacted by more and more people questioning why the province isn’t enacting “shelter-in-place” or state lockdowns directing residents to stay home, as has now been done in Illinois, New York and California. The orders affect more than 70 million Americans.

“It sounds easy, but we need the essential work to go on,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. "The measures (BC has) are actually very similar if we look at the details of them and it's just called different things in different places – I will say, however, that the whole concept of shelter-in-place is something we've been saying a long time now."

But the kinds of crowds seen on beaches, parks and the White Rock pier have many British Columbians urging Henry to take action, saying it’s clear many people aren’t getting the message to stay home as much as possible.

“I can't even believe I'm saying this, but I think it's time for us to have a lockdown or quarantine or shelter-in-place and we people in BC need to stop – just stop what we're doing and take a pause for 14 days," said Vancouver resident Willow Yamauchi. “I think it's time to be really clear and say don't gather outside of your family, the people who live in your home and don't interact with someone other than your pharmacist or medical person or to get your groceries.”

A Surrey Memorial Hospital physician is echoing those sentiments, suggesting being out and about in an urban setting is a risk.

"I think realistically it's almost impossible to be outside and maintain social distancing in a city like Vancouver," said Dr. Rishad Usmani. “Unfortunately, a lot of people may be asymptomatic and not know they have the virus and think it's OK to go outside."

Penny Lloyd has written an open letter to Henry and provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix, urging her social media network to send their own copy to policymakers.

“The average Joe and Jane citizens aren't 'getting it,'" writes Lloyd in the letter. "The mall parking lots are busy, the coffee shops are full and many people are gathering! When you say ‘please avoid gatherings over 50’ people read your instructions literally. The parties, gatherings and B.C. vacations are still happening.”

When CTV News asked about that issue, Henry admitted some clarity was required and that she wasn’t endorsing gatherings of up to 50 people, only allowing them if physical distancing of two metres between attendees is observed. She said the number was intended to accommodate necessary gatherings like funerals.

“It is a challenging message, I understand, but I don't think telling everyone to stay at home is going to help us because we do need to keep things moving and for people to be out doing the things that allow us to go to work every day,” said Henry. “It's finding that balance, and we will not get it right every time, but we're changing as things as issues come up.”

The American example

A growing number of US states and individual cities are locking down their citizens in a bid to curb the explosion in COVID-19 infections.

“No, this is not life as usual," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told his constituents, as the death toll in his state topped 35. "Accept it and realize it and deal with it."

The measures are a frantic attempt to keep medical systems from being overwhelmed by too many patients requiring intensive care and ventilators all at once, especially as officials are abandoning the idea of widespread testing because of a lack of sufficient protective supplies for medical personnel, as well as a lack of the tests themselves and the lab space to process them.

In B.C., testing is only done for a narrow range of people presenting COVID-19 symptoms like fever, cough and trouble breathing, and the true number of infections isn’t known.

Moving forward

Henry says that the province is ramping up testing capability, but acknowledges the locations and details of individual infections no longer matter.

“We're now at the place, though, it's irrelevant which community you're in,” she said. “The risk of the virus is everywhere in British Columbia, everywhere in Canada and that has been the evolution of this virus not just in B.C. and in Canada, but everywhere around the world."

When asked whether a lockdown would be a move he’d support, Vancouver’s mayor didn’t want to commit.

“All options are on the table for us, but we are trying to do them in a way that is reflecting the best advice of our senior health officials," said mayor Kennedy Stewart.

The head of the city’s newly formed COVID-19 task force was even more cautious.

“To have a shelter-in-place order is a big step and we want to make sure we're aligned with health and the province when a step like that rolls out, in part because we really need to have our head around what the ramifications are of people who may not choose to shelter in place and what that means for our staff resources and our ability to do something about it," said Fire Chief Darrell Reid.

As officials hesitate to take the difficult decisions their US counterparts have done, Usmani is offering a personal plea for people to do the right thing voluntarily.

"Just stay home - I don't want to make decisions that the Italian physicians have had to make about allocating ventilators,” he said.

“I don't think anyone wants to reach that point and even if there's a small per cent chance, and I think there's actually a high probability we will reach that point, we should do everything we can and if that means we stay home for 2 weeks out of your life of 80 years, I think that's a reasonable thing to give up."