Empty streets unlikely should COVID-19 spread widely in B.C.

The images of empty streets, shuttered shops and closed borders coming out of China and Italy are an indication of one way public health officials can react to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

But should the disease become epidemic in B.C., it's unlikely those kinds of scenes will play out here.

That's because the containment measures currently in place for those diagnosed with COVID-19 will actually slacken should the the disease spread through the population, according to public health officials.

"When you have community transmission of a respiratory pathogen, counterintuitively your interventions actually become different and, in some ways less, restrictive," said Dr. Reka Gustafson, medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health

To date, 2,700 people have died worldwide from COVID-19 and 78,000 have been infected.

Only seven cases have been detected in British Columbia, 13 in all of a Canada and no one has died. The small number has allowed health officials to battle it on a case-by-case basis, by asking those infected and their close contacts self-isolate for two weeks. 

But should it become impossible to track every person who contracts the virus, there will be a shift in treatment away from "containment mode" to "mitigation mode," something more commonly seen in the response to seasonal influenza.

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"What we do know ... is that the vast majority of people who get [COVID-19] have a self-limited illness. They and their families can look after them in their own home, and they will recover on their own," said Gustafson. "People in the seventh and eighth decades of their life are more likely to have serious illness. And that is, again, very similar to influenza," she said.

Gustafson says new information about COVID-19 is coming to light every day, and the more researchers learn, the more the virus appears to be similar to other respiratory infections that circulate in the community.

"The one key difference to remember is that when a virus is new, there is no pre-existing immunity in the population. There's no vaccine, nobody has met this virus before, so there is a potential for a lot of people to get sick at the same time," she said. 

In the event of a widespread outbreak, testing for COVID-19 will likely focus only on the most severe cases, says Gustafson. People with symptoms will be advised to stay at home until they are well, and employers will be encouraged to support their sick workers. 

In addition, work and public places will be asked to make sure they have good hand sanitizing facilities in place.

Health officials in B.C. continue to reinforce that there is no need for panic around COVID-19.

Gustafson says people should remember the 2010 Vancouver Olympics took place in the midst of the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

"There were no cancellations of events," she said. "But we did ask people to stay home if they were sick."