Canadian public health agencies are ramping up preparations to deal with a new viral illness that has killed 17 people and infected more than 400 in China and has spread to other countries, including one case in the United States.
Health officials have said there are no confirmed cases of the emerging coronavirus in Canada, but public health agencies say they would not be surprised if the bug does makes its way here — or already has.
Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, notes the virus comes from the same family that can lead to the common cold. It’s also the same family that caused the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, 17 years ago, which killed at least 774 people worldwide, including 44 people in Canada.
However, Williams said the country is “much better prepared” than it was in 2003.
“The system is on alert, all the things are in place and we’re monitoring,” he told The Canadian Press. “If it’s a false alarm for Canada, so be it.”
The agencies said they are awaiting direction from the World Health Organization, which has convened a group of experts to advise whether the outbreak should be declared a global emergency as the virus appears in other countries. The group will meet again Thursday to figure out the best way forward.
Canada’s chief public health officer said Monday the risk to Canadians of contracting the virus remains low, but airports in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal — all of which have direct flights from China — would begin screening passengers as one measure of defence.
In an email to Black Press Media, the Canada Border Services Agency said it did not currently have plans to screen for the coronavirus at land crossings, including between B.C. and Washington State, the latter of which has a confirmed case of the virus.
The U.S. man returned to the Seattle area last week after travelling to Wuhan, where the outbreak started. The Snohomish County resident is in his 30s and was in good condition Tuesday at a hospital in Everett, outside Seattle. He’s not considered a threat to medical staff or the public, health officials said.
Williams and Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the associate chief medical officer of health with the province, said global travel and the international makeup of the country are the main reasons the virus could come to Canada.
The pair say they have been in close contact with the Public Health Agency of Canada, which was created in response to two critical commissions of the health systems response to the SARS outbreak.
Williams and Yaffe said they recently investigated three cases in the province that “met some case definition:” flu-like symptoms and travel to Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak.
“We tested all those fairly quickly and ruled them out,” Williams said.
They said there is still a lot to learn about the new virus, but Chinese health officials have said there is evidence it can be transmitted from person to person.
“If there is (human-to-human) transmission, it doesn’t so far seem to be as rapid or aggressive as SARS, but all these viruses are a little different in their communicability … and mortality,” Dr. Williams said.
Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer for B.C., credited Chinese health officials for their early detection of the virus and its genetic sequencing, which has given authorities around the world the ability to test for it.
“We’re in influenza season, and this causes an illness that is similar to influenza, so having a test and being able to say, ‘No you don’t’ or ‘Yes you do have it — and here is what you should do,’ is incredibly important,” said Henry, who was with Toronto Public Health during the SARS outbreak.
“It really is an important step ahead from where we were with SARS.”
Communication — both among health agencies and to the front lines — is also markedly better, the doctors said.
Yaffe said public health agencies, hospitals and paramedics have all received numerous memos with up-to-date information about the new virus. Frontline workers are also now asking anyone who has flu-like symptoms to take a travel history.
Health-care practitioners are also being reminded to gear up with protective masks and gloves as well as regular hand-washing — practices that not only help against this coronavirus, but also work for preventing the spread of the flu and other viruses, Henry said.
New Brunswick has issued a similar edict to its regional health authorities, according to Dr. Jennifer Russell, the province’s chief medical officer of health.
The doctors also want Canadians to be careful if travelling to China, and to tell their health-care provider if they have flu-like symptoms.
— with files from Kevin Bissett in Fredericton
– with files from Katya Slepian, Black Press Media
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press