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B.C. ready to curb price-gouging, restrict travel if COVID-19 escalates

B.C.'s plan to tackle coronavirus is based on the province's influenza pandemic plan
B.C.'s plan to tackle coronavirus is based on the province's influenza pandemic plan. File photo

The B.C. government is ready to use emergency powers to curb price-gouging or restrict travel between communities if the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) intensifies.

In the meantime, the province says it’s developing a response plan that could be fully operational in the next 10 days that would not necessarily require it to tap into powers granted under the Emergency Program Act and the Public Health Act.

Premier John Horgan announced Friday (March 6) he was appointing a deputy ministers committee that would guide a holistic government approach to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re ready to respond as conditions change. B.C.’s Pandemic [Provincial] Co-ordination Plan is already underway. This deputy ministers committee will ensure that we are as topical and as timely with information to you as we can possibly be,” he told reporters in downtown Vancouver.

“There is already actions in place to address the spread of this disease and I have every confidence that we’re doing everything we can to protect public services.”

The province’s response plan focuses on four factors: protecting the population, protecting vulnerable citizens, protecting health workers and supporting health-care capacity.

“This is not just a health issue, it’s an economic issue. That’s why Minister [Carole] James, Minister [Michelle] Mungall and Minister [Lisa] Beare are on the committee,” Horgan said, referring to the finance minister, jobs minister and tourism minister, respectively.

“We need to look at tourism, we need to look at what are the consequence for a small, open economy like British Columbia. How will we — outward facing, looking at the 7 billion souls on the planet that we want to trade with, that we have social and cultural connections to — how do we continue to maintain that and also give the public a high degree of confidence that we’re protecting their interest as well? It’s a delicate balance.”

The province has been in contact with grocery chain stores and is monitoring supply chains in the event of shortages, but it so far isn’t anxious about British Columbians’ access to the basics.

The response plan would also reduce the number of visitors to senior care facilities as well as screen visitors — steps typically taken during the winter influenza season.

The province is managing and co-ordinating medical supplies for hospitals as well as community and primary care centres to the point it’s tracked down the location of every ventilator in B.C.

But it’s unclear at what exact point the province would enact all of its plan or tap into emergency powers, as the virus is expected to spread gradually and may only require emergency powers to be used in specific communities.

“While we are not at this point yet, B.C. is willing and ready to use its emergency powers should they become necessary,” Health Minister Adrian Dix told reporters.

He added that the province is in the midst of upping its communications strategy for the general public and at-risk populations.

Chief among those messages the health minister has for British Columbians: wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face.

Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry, meanwhile, is discouraging people from wearing facemasks unless an individual is sick or else a health worker is in a clinical setting.

“We don’t recommend people who are well to wear them because it is not an effective way to protect yourself and we know that it can actually be irritating and people are more likely to touch their face when they have a mask on and that can be a way of inoculating yourself,” she said when prompted by a reporter wearing a facemask.

The framework of the plan is based on the province’s influenza pandemic plan, save for the deployment of vaccines and antivirals since no treatments for COVID-19 currently exist.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) has developed an independent test for the virus, meaning it does not need to await results from a national lab.

To date, the BCCDC has tested 2,803 samples from 2,008 individuals.

Four additional labs able to test for COVID-19 are expected to open next week.

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