VICTORIA -- British Columbia has activated a pandemic co-ordination plan to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak that has sickened 21 people in the province and is prepared to escalate the plan if needed.

Premier John Horgan said Friday he's appointed a deputy ministers committee to oversee his government's response and it will report to a cabinet committee co-chaired by him and Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Phase one of the pandemic plan is underway and focuses on identifying and containing the disease through strong testing, border surveillance and isolating people who test positive, the government said.

It said phase two would accelerate the government's co-ordination to quickly direct actions and resources and prepare for the use of emergency powers if they become necessary.

“I believe that we're on the right track but we need to be vigilant and I want to give British Columbians every confidence that the people here are at your disposal,” Horgan said, standing next to Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

The premier said the province has tested 2,803 samples involving 2,008 individuals since January. By the end of next week it will have four additional labs for testing and over the next month it will acquire additional machines, Horgan said.

Overall, the province has plans to deal with a sustained three- to four-month outbreak if necessary, but officials stressed that such a scenario was not certain.

Dix said B.C. is focusing on four key areas: protecting the population, protecting vulnerable citizens, protecting health workers and supporting the health-care system's capacity.

To protect the population, Dix said B.C. is increasing testing capacity, expanding communication with the general public and at-risk groups, and preparing for the possibility of high absence rates in the public sector. It also plans to support businesses and institutions to deal with the same challenges, he said.

Vulnerable citizens are being protected through measures to help seniors in care homes, he said, and future actions could include reducing the number of people coming into the facilities, screening visitors and increasing testing of residents and health-care workers.

The province will protect health workers by implementing standardized preparedness plans at the local level and manage supply chains for hospitals, community and primary care, he said. B.C. will soon receive a large shipment of additional supplies, he added.

It's also establishing a list of health-care workers who could be rapidly sent to areas with higher needs for a sustained period, he said.

Finally, Dix said the province is supporting the capacity of the health-care system by using established emergency operation committees across health authorities to plan and respond at local levels. It also has protocols to create capacity as needed in hospitals, by discharging low-risk patients, deferring scheduled surgeries, identifying new care spaces and ensuring bed capacity.

It has already implemented hospital-wide protocols to safely triage and separate anyone presenting with respiratory illness, Dix said.

“We are currently and clearly in the containment phase. But it is our responsibility, and the premier's direction, that we have been preparing for a month for a more serious situation as it develops,” Dix said.

“We live in an interdependent world, as all of you know, and there are aspects of this that we simply do not and can not control, and that's why we have to be prepared.”

Of the 21 people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus, four have recovered and only one is in hospital in the intensive care unit, but the condition of the woman in her 80s has improved, said Henry.

Everyone else continues to be in isolation at home and monitored by public health officials, she said.

“It's very clear that we are in a global situation,” Henry said. “This virus doesn't recognize geopolitical boundaries. So we need to take the measures that we can to do our very best to protect the citizens of British Columbia ... but also to ensure that our health-care system is protected.

“That's what the plan here is about.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2020.