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All Canadians can do their part to help as many people as possible stay healthy and slow the spread of COVID-19, Canada’s chief public health officer says.

Dr. Theresa Tam wants Canadians to help prevent transmission of the virus — and offered advice today in Ottawa on how the general population can do just that.

She spoke at a press conference as part of a sweeping government response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Avoiding close contact is an important contribution to the battle against the spread of the virus, according to Tam, a physician and expert in infectious disease and emergency preparedness.

This means considering shopping or using public transit in “off-peak hours.” It means “greeting one another with a wave or elbow bump instead of a handshake, kiss or hug.”

And she has a “two-arm” rule. “Where possible, increase social distancing with others to two arms' length, approximately two metres,” Tam said.

Illustration by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the structure of the novel coronavirus first detected in Wuhan, China, in 2019. Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

The 'two-arm' rule, and other ways to stay healthy

​​​​​Here’s the full list of what we can all do to help stop COVID-19, according to Tam:

“Where possible, increase social distancing with others to two arms' length, approximately two metres,” says Canada's chief public health officer.
  • Practice social distancing: two arms' length (two metres)

  • Wash hands frequently

  • Cough into sleeves

  • Greet your friends with a wave or elbow bump

  • Avoid handshakes

  • Avoid hugs and kisses

  • Postpone or cancel all non-essential travel outside of Canada

  • Consider self-isolation if returning from abroad

  • Consider cancelling vacations and entertainment plans

  • Cancel or postpone events with large crowds

  • Avoid non-essential gatherings and crowded places

  • Shop or ride public transit during off-peak hours

File photo of Royal Caribbean International’s Explorer of the Seas, a cruise ship in Victoria, B.C., in 2016. Government of B.C. photo

Postpone or cancel events, travel plans

Tam and the medical community are advising everybody not to travel outside Canada for any non-essential reason right now.

Canada's cruise-ship season is postponed until July 1, as Transport Canada has suspended the season nationwide.

Tam believes “now is the time” for organizers to cancel or postpone events with large crowds, including “concerts, conferences (and) large social or religious gatherings.”

Do not attend large events or crowded places if feeling ill, she said.

“This means reconsidering your vacations, going to sporting and entertainment events (or) large international conferences,” Tam said.

Consider self-isolation if returning from abroad

The government also said it would be limiting inbound flights due to the virus.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau said overseas international flights coming into Canada will be "restricted to a smaller number of airports," without specifying which airports had been chosen.

Garneau said it was a "precaution" in order to "concentrate overseas international passengers coming into Canada."

Health-care workers and people close to them, as well as all older adults, people with medical conditions and those at risk of disease should avoid travel.

“We are considering all travel outside of Canada to be high-risk right now. The spread of the illness is quite extensive around the globe,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said​​​​​.

All travellers coming to Canada must “self-monitor” for symptoms of COVID-19, Tam said.

They are also being asked to “consider self-isolation as an additional precaution.”

File photo of Yichang City, Hubei Province in China, in 2016. Asian Development Bank photo

Canadians may be stuck abroad if they travel

The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Canada's deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, explained that while the outbreak started in China, as more countries have been affected, the medical community is now updating its advice.

Travellers coming to Canada from Hubei province in China, Iran or Italy are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days at home, and report to local public health authorities.

While Canadians can choose whether to stay in Canada, by staying they are not only helping protect themselves, but also their families and their communities from COVID-19, Tam said.

Travelling abroad may also present its own set of problems, aside from the virus.

Other nations are making decisions about containing the spread of the virus that may impact Canadians’ ability to travel freely, Tam said.

“Your one-week trip may become much longer,” she warned.

If Canadians do pick up COVID-19 while abroad, the country they are in may not offer the quality of health care to which Canadians are accustomed.

Actions Canadians take today ‘will save lives’

Canada has 157 cases of COVID-19 and has tested more than 15,000 individuals to date, Tam said.

A wave of cancellations of public and sports events and a shuttering of institutions has already cascaded across Canada.

Parliament suspended for five weeks, as federal ministers spoke to media about the steps they are taking to tackle COVID-19.

Hajdu, speaking before Tam, said Canadians need to follow important public health measures in order to contain the spread of the virus.

“This is a serious public health threat and a crisis, as well as an emergency,” she said. “The actions that you will take today will save lives.”

The minister said the measures were important to protect the “particularly at risk” Canadians in each community.

“Those are the vulnerable,” she said, “the elderly, the people with underlying conditions, diabetes, a range of diseases that people already live with that put them at particular risk of an extremely severe outcome, including and up to death.”