As novel coronavirus outbreaks spread across a growing list of countries, Canadians are being warned to prepare for a possible pandemic.
In a shift from previous messages, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Theresa Tam acknowledged Monday that Canada may no longer be able to contain and limit the virus if it continues to spread around the world. She said governments, businesses and individuals should prepare for an outbreak or pandemic.
“We are coming to similar conclusions,” agreed Dr. Vera Etches, the City of Ottawa’s top health officer, on Monday. “It looks like it is going to be more and more difficult to contain this virus and it may well evolve into a pandemic. That would change the efforts to contain every last case and contact.”
Etches said people can take steps now, at home and at work, to prepare.
Some of those steps include stocking up on needed prescriptions ahead of time so there is no need to do so during a possible pandemic. She also recommended people stock up on non-perishable food.
“Imagine if someone was ill for a week. What would you need?”
She said there are ongoing discussions about setting up an assessment centre outside of hospitals to reduce pressure on the health system.
“The global risk situation is evolving,” said Tam, noting that the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has grown beyond its epicentre in China to include rapid community spreading in several countries. “The window for containment is closing. These signs are worrisome.”
She made the comments shortly after Ontario and British Columbia confirmed their latest cases of a novel coronavirus, bringing the Canadian total to 11. In Ontario, a woman in her twenties, who returned to Toronto after travelling in China, is the latest presumptive case. The patient has only mild symptoms and has isolated herself, say Ontario health officials.
Health officials are also tracing contacts after a woman arrived in Vancouver from Iran, by way of Montreal, with the novel coronavirus. A man who was a close contact of the woman has been confirmed as the country’s 11th case.
Iran is now home to an epidemic with 13 confirmed deaths, according to the government. Italy is the site of Europe’s first outbreak. The country locked down at least 12 communities and cancelled a Venice carnival after six deaths as of Monday. South Korea also has a growing outbreak as do a number of other countries.
On Monday, Tam said it’s possible novel coronavirus is present in countries that don’t have the capacity to detect and monitor it, which makes trying to identify potential cases coming into Canada at the border increasingly difficult.
Countries like Canada have, so far, succeeded in identifying and containing the virus to a few, mostly mild, cases. But if there are more and more countries involved, she said, the border measures used to identify potential cases might no longer be effective or feasible.
“This is something we have to be prepared for.”
Tam said the quickly evolving situation tells Canada and other countries “that we have to prepare in the event of more widespread transmission in our communities.”
Given the global situation, Tam said it will be very difficult to stop the virus from spreading, but slowing it down is Canada’s goal.
Delaying the onset of a broader outbreak in Canada could put it beyond the seasonal flu and virus season, which would take the pressure off the health system and give officials and individuals more time to prepare.
A delay would also allow health officials to better understand the novel coronavirus and give researchers more time to look for treatments.
“We are trying to push past winter respiratory season. That will help a lot.”
The World Health Organization is telling countries to prepare as if COVID-19 is a pandemic, although it has not declared it one.
Etches, meanwhile, said people should be prepared in the workplace as well, by ensuring someone else is available to take on necessary tasks if an employee is sick.
Etches and other health officials continue to encourage people to wash their hands regularly and practice keeping their hands away from their faces to prevent spread.
There have been no cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa. To date, 25 people have tested negative. Etches said one or two people come to the attention of Ottawa Public Health every day and are assessed as to whether they meet the case definition for testing.
In Ontario, 540 potential cases have tested negative, nine are under investigation, three cases have not been resolved and there is one new presumptive positive. British Columbia has had a total of seven cases.
Meanwhile, the remaining Canadians repatriated from Wuhan and quarantined at Trenton Air Base are due to head home. In Cornwall, at the Nav Centre, 129 Canadians are being quarantined after having been evacuated off the Diamond Princess cruise ship. In Japan, 48 Canadians who were aboard the cruise are being treated for symptoms of COVID-19. Thirty-four of the former passengers are hospitalized, said Tam, two of them in critical condition.
Globally, there have been 79,331 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 77,262 of them in China. There have been 2,595 deaths in China and 23 deaths outside China, with cases in 30 countries.
More information about novel coronavirus is available on the Ottawa Public Health website at: ottawapublichealth.ca/en/public-health-topics/novel-coronavirus.aspx