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Canadians told to avoid travel to Iran in face of coronavirus outbreak

Those returning should self-isolate for 14 days, says Canada's chief public health officer
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This story has been updated since first posting to provide the latest information on reported novel coronavirus cases in B.C. and Washington State as of March 3.

Health officials said this week Canadians should avoid all non-essential travel to Iran, as well as China and northern Italy, and people returning from those countries to Canada should contact health authorities and self-isolate in their homes for 14 days –even if they have no symptoms of illness –to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, announced the new warnings about COVID-19 Monday, focusing on Iran, as that country became one of the global hot spots in the growth of the epidemic.

Tam said health authorities took the special step of singling out Iran as a country of concern in the coronavirus outbreak because “that is a country with rapidly escalating cases and local transmission . . . those are the ones we pay particular attention to.”

The warnings this week came as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced four new cases of the coronavirus in B.C. Tuesday.

One of those cases –a woman in her 30s –is in the same household as a woman in her 60s from Tehran, who is visiting family in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, which includes the North Shore, Richmond and Vancouver, and was confirmed as testing positive for the coronavirus on Saturday.

Two other cases include a man in his 60s and an adult woman –whose age was not available –who both recently returned from Iran and live in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

A man in his 50s who returned last week to his home in the Fraser Health region –which includes Burnaby and Coquitlam as well as the Fraser Valley –after visiting Iran, also tested positive.

Seven of B.C.’s most recent cases have all been linked to travel to Iran.

So far there has been no call to cancel large gatherings such as Norouz celebrations marking the Iranian New Year.

Henry said there is no reason to cancel events, but warned organizers need to “do a risk assessment on an ongoing basis.”

Norouz events hosted by the Canadian Iranian Foundation are planned at North Vancouver’s Shipyards this weekend and downtown at the Pinnacle Hotel later in the month.

A concert by Iranian star Rana Mansour scheduled for North Vancouver’s Centennial Theatre this month was recently postponed citing “the aim to reduce the risk of the coronavirus”as the reason in an announcement on social media.

Members of the local Iranian community are reacting to the latest news about the spread of the illness with concern –particularly for family members who are still in Iran or who are having difficulty with finding return flights  –said Ali Najafi, owner of Apadana Travel in North Vancouver.

Najafi said the weeks around Norouz are usually a busy time for travel in the Iranian community.

This year, people are opting not to go, he said.

The main issue his travel agency is dealing with is trying to find flights out of Iran for customers who are stuck there, he said.

Many flights to and from Iran have been cancelled and the few remaining flights –all of which involve multiple stops –can run more than $4,000 a ticket, he said.

He added most people from the Iranian community are supportive of efforts from health authorities to contain coronavirus.

Most have doubts that the numbers being released by Iranian authorities –hovering around 2,300 cases Tuesday –are accurate, he added.

As of Tuesday, 33 people had tested positive for the coronavirus out of approximately 2,900 people tested in Canada.

“Right now inside Canada the risk to the general population is low,”Tam said Monday.

But she added the risk could be moderate for older people and people with underlying health conditions as well as for those who have travelled internationally.

In neighbouring Washington State, nine people have recently died of the illness, including several who were residents of a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington.