British Columbia

What you need to know about COVID-19 in B.C. on March 17, 2020

British Columbia has declared a public health emergency, ordering all bars to close and other businesses to implement strict social distancing measures.

B.C. has declared a public health emergency after confirming 83 new cases and 3 more deaths

Vancouver-based Lululemon is one of several companies to close its storefronts in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

THE LATEST:

  • Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has declared a public health emergency.
  • There are 186 confirmed cases in the province.
  • 7 people have died.
  • All bars and nightclubs in B.C. have been ordered to close.
  • B.C. elementary and secondary schools have been ordered to stay closed indefinitely.
  • Courthouses in Chilliwack, Nanaimo and Campbell River closed
  • The finance minister says the province is "strongly advocating" to have EI eligibility extended.
  • Vancouver International Airport (YVR) says it is increasing screening measures as it becomes one of only four Canadian airports accepting international travellers.
  • British Columbians are asked to continue social distancing and avoid crowds.
  • Businesses must implement measures to ensure people stay 1-2 metres from each other.
  • The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says the supply of swabs for COVID-19 testing has become 'critically limited.'
  • An increasing number of British Columbians are out of work as restaurants close and industry scales down.

​​​​​​What you need to know today

The province of British Columbia declared a public health emergency Tuesday after 83 new cases were confirmed and three more people died of COVID-19. The province has now identified a total of 186 patients, seven of whom have died.

Provincial Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the emergency declaration will give her the ability to be "faster, more streamlined and nimble" in carrying out her directions.

It also means Henry can issue verbal orders "with immediate effect." And she can call on peace officers to carry out those orders.

To that end, Henry has ordered all bars and nightclubs to close. Other businesses must implement measures to keep a distance of one to two metres between people. Any restaurants that can't make that happen have been told to switch to takeout only.

Schools to remain closed indefinitely

The province's elementary and secondary schools have also been ordered to remain closed indefinitely.

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming said the province made "the difficult decision" to suspend K-12 learning in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 through the education system. Fleming said "99 per cent" of B.C.'s 550,000 students are currently out of school until March 30, but independent schools and private schools that are still open have been told to suspend classes immediately.

All students will receive final grades regardless of the shutdown, and those set to move onto the next grade this fall will still do so.

At the same news conference, B.C. Finance Minister Carole James said the province is continuing to work on a stimulus package to help the economy during the pandemic. She said she hopes eligibility requirements for employment insurance benefits will be expanded to include more workers, such as those who are self-employed or part-time, as early as Wednesday.

Courthouses closed

B.C.'s provincial court announced the closure of three courthouses Wednesday after learning that a court participant at each location had been in touch with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

The courthouses in Campbell River and Nanaimo will be closed until March 23 and the courthouse in Chilliwack will be closed indefinitely.

An increasing number of British Columbians are working from home Tuesday or finding themselves out of work entirely, as employers across the province close storefronts, offices, cafes and any location where people may gather in an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In the bigger cities, pub chains like Cactus Club and the Donnelly Group temporarily closed their restaurants and bars, putting hundreds out of work. LNG Canada announced it is reducing the number of staff at its Kitimat site on B.C.'s North Coast by half, accounting for about 100 more jobs.

The intersection of Robson and Granville Streets in Vancouver, typically crawling with people on a sunny spring day, were empty on March 11. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

All of Vancouver's restaurants, bars, lounges and similar venues were ordered to close to prevent thousands of St. Patrick's Day revellers from coming together in one area.

B.C.'s tourism sector, historically one of the strongest pillars of the provincial economy, has already begun to feel the effects of a slowdown without the usual rush of springtime visitors. Regional economies in Metro Vancouver and Victoria had already been bracing for a poor tourism season after cruise ships, which had became a symbol of the pandemic after two voyages saw early outbreaks, were banned from Canadian ports until at least July 1.

People in Vancouver are gradually learning to practise social distancing as the COVID-19 outbreak spreads, spending more time at home and off work. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"A lot of folks are saying, 'If things don't turn around soon, we're going to have to shut our doors and start laying people off,'" Ted Lee, CEO of Tourism Vancouver, said in an interview Tuesday.

"We need help."

Swab supply limited

As of Tuesday, BC Ferries will allow passengers to stay inside their cars on the enclosed car deck to encourage social distancing and to avoid crowds on deck.

Passengers are not usually permitted to stay in their cars to ensure their safety in an emergency.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control said its supply of swabs used to test for COVID-19 has become "critically limited," a situation confirmed by B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix in an interview on Tuesday.

Dix said testing is being further prioritized for health care workers and clusters of infection, for example, while health authorities search for more supplies and work to use other varieties of swabs.

"Every effort is being made to get more swabs," Dix said Tuesday. "We have to concentrate now to control the spread of the virus on specific things."

Gatherings cancelled

British Columbians have been ordered to cancel all gatherings of more than 50 people. Citizens have been urged to stay home if possible, and municipalities were asked to close non-essential community hubs.

In B.C., many public facilities including recreation centres, swimming pools and libraries have been closed.

All B.C. hospitals are now expected to postpone non-urgent scheduled surgeries to free up hospital beds in anticipation of more COVID-19 patients. Pharmacists have been told to provide prescription refills without requiring patients to make non-essential visits to their doctors.

Drastic border measures

The federal government is closing Canada's borders to most people who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents as of Wednesday to slow the spread of COVID-19. Air crews, diplomats, U.S. citizens and immediate family members of Canadians will still be admitted to the country.

The international departures gate at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, B.C., was nearly deserted on Friday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Ottawa has mandated that airlines screen passengers with COVID-19 symptoms and not allow them to board planes back to Canada.

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) says it is working to increase screening measures as it becomes one of only four Canadian airports accepting international travellers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The airport's CEO said travellers arriving on overseas flights will see more signs warning them about the novel coronavirus after they disembark, while Canada Border Services Agency staff and health-care staff monitor them closely for symptoms.

Dix said visitors from the U.S. should not travel to the province despite the federal government's exception, particularly if they are from neighbouring Washington state, which has grappled with a serious local outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Important reminders:

B.C.'s top doctor, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said the risk of contracting coronavirus in B.C. communities remains low. Health officials widely agree the most important thing you can do to prevent coronavirus and other illnesses is to wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face. The World Health Organization said more than 80 per cent of COVID-19 infections are estimated to be mild.

What's happening elsewhere in Canada

In Canada, public health officials have reported 596 confirmed or presumptive cases. 

  • Ontario: 189 confirmed cases, including one death and five cases listed as resolved.
  • British Columbia: 186 confirmed, including seven deaths and five cases listed as resolved.
  • Alberta: 97 confirmed.
  • Quebec: 74 confirmed.
  • Saskatchewan: eight presumptive.
  • New Brunswick: six presumptive, two confirmed.
  • Manitoba: eight confirmed, seven presumptive. 
  • Canadians quarantined at CFB Trenton: eight confirmed.
  • Nova Scotia: six presumptive, one confirmed.
  • Prince Edward Island: one confirmed.
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: three presumptive.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Stay home. Isolate yourself and call your local public health authority. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested.

What can I do to protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Keep them clean.
  • Keep your distance from people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Unless you're already infected, masks won't help you.
  • Be aware of evolving travel advisories to different regions.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

  • If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.

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