Coronavirus: Who needs to be tested, who does not

Those who are symptom-free don’t have to be tested for COVID-19, even if they have travelled abroad, provincial health officer Bonnie Henry said Friday, in announcing 11 new cases of the virus, for a total of 64 cases.

All the new cases were in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

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Henry also appealed to employers on Friday not to ask employees to go to their doctors for notes that say it’s safe to return to work after 14 days.

“Not everyone needs to be tested for this,” she said. “We know it’s not spreading widely in our community yet. And at some point, if it is spreading widely, we won’t be testing most people. We will only be testing people who are in hospital or where there’s a cluster or where there’s outbreak potential so that we’re able to manage those effectively.”

The people who need a test are the ones who are referred for a test, said B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, noting that more than 4,300 tests for COVID-19 were performed this week — “an extraordinary achievement by everyone involved in the system.” As of Friday, 6,326 individuals had been tested in B.C.

Island Health has announced a referral-only COVID-19 screening clinic in Victoria. Testing at the clinic will occur by appointment for people who have been referred by their primary care provider or an 811 nurse.

People experiencing symptoms such as a fever, dry cough or difficulty breathing are asked to contact their primary care providers or call HealthLink B.C. at 811 to be assessed. People in the Victoria region assessed as requiring follow-up will be directed to call the clinic, where a triage nurse will reassess them to determine if an appointment for testing is needed.

The health authority said it is working to open COVID-19 referral-only screening clinics in other regions, including Nanaimo, Campbell River and the Comox Valley.

Premier John Horgan said he is asking for federal support to help minimize impacts of the pandemic on the economy.

After a conference call the premiers held with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Horgan said he was pleased that federal funding to support provinces in dealing with the virus will not be allocated on the typical per-capita basis, but on the basis of need.

Horgan provided Ottawa with a comprehensive list of medical equipment the province might need in case of a surge in cases, he said, noting B.C. has a “significant” number of cases.

While health and safety is the top priority, protecting businesses and workers against fallout from the pandemic is not far behind, he said.

He called on Trudeau to make it easier for workers who wouldn’t normally qualify for employment insurance protections to stay home if they have COVID-19 symptoms or want to exercise social distancing to prevent its spread. That may include people who are self-employed, contract workers and others.

“We want to make sure the federal government expands these programs to the greatest extent possible,” he said.

B.C. is also in a unique situation with so many ports of entry to Washington state, which is experiencing a significant outbreak. Horgan told Trudeau that federal leaders need to “up their game” when it comes to entry ports, and pressing pause on the cruise season was a good start.

The 11 new cases announced Friday include three administrative staff at Lions Gate Hospital, a close contact of an infected health-care worker from Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, and five travel-related cases from Iran, Egypt (a tour and cruise on the Nile), the Philippines and Mexico, and two cases that are still under investigation.

There are now 39 cases in the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, 23 in Fraser Health, one in Island Health and one in Interior Health.

Two of the 64 B.C. cases are in hospital in acute care. “And we know that number will grow over time as the number of cases grow,” said Dix. Six people have recovered and one has died.

The health-care system needs to ramp up to accommodate people who have the virus, while at the same time safely looking after everybody else who needs health care, said Henry.

Island Health has a total of 1,770 acute-care hospital beds and 155 ventilators, with more ventilators on order for use throughout the province.

On Thursday, the B.C. government advised against all non-essential travel. Those who do travel should self-isolate for 14 days immediately upon returning home, said Henry.

The government of Canada followed suit on Friday, warning against all international travel. It is also limiting inbound flights to select airports, one of which Dix expects to be Vancouver International Airport.

Henry said it’s not inevitable that B.C. will have a major surge of cases in a short period of time, adding all the simple things public health officials have been urging can prevent that kind of increase. “So this is the time where we all need to do our part, we need to stay away from others when we’re sick in particular, we need to cover mouths when we cough, we need to wash our hands regularly, we need to enhance our cleaning in our environment,” she said. “I’m calling on everyone in B.C. to do that work with us.”

Henry also offered reassurance that it’s safe to go to shopping and to restaurants. “There are a lot of things we can do outdoors which are very safe things to do,” she said.

“We’re not talking about shutting down society.”

Public health officials have been working with businesses, transit and ferries on enhancing cleaning in high-touch areas to remove viruses from hard surfaces, said Henry.

Droplets of the novel coronavirus can spread about a metre in coughing and sneezing, and live on surfaces “for hours, sometimes maybe days,” said Henry. She suggested a one-to-10 bleach solution on surfaces and alcohol-based hand sanitizers or plain soap for hands. “It’s so important that we enhance our cleaning — [the virus is] very susceptible to all of our regular household cleaning products.”

She said the precautions are necessary to slow the spread of the virus so the health-care system can handle it and the most vulnerable in the community are protected.

Henry made mandatory her earlier recommendation that events of more than 250 people be cancelled, which will allow insurance policies to kick in.

Henry and Dix continued to urge people who are sick to stay at home and to contact a health-care provider or the HealthLink 811 phone line only if they believe they have COVID-19 because they have symptoms. The nurse line and health providers can assess whether someone needs to be sent for testing.

More than 10,000 calls to 811 were made over a three-day period this week, and people are having trouble getting through, said Dix, asking that they be patient as the province builds up the service with more nurses.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

— With files from Canadian Press

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