With millions on lockdown in China and the death toll rising, Canadian public health officials remain assured that the risk of an outbreak of a new virus in Canada is low.
For the second time this week, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, updated the media on a new type of coronavirus that is causing panic in central China.
Tam said Canadian officials continue to monitor the situation and have contact with health officials in China and other countries, the World Health Organization, as well as airlines, the provinces, and all other key players.
“The Government of Canada continues to monitor, gather and share information and ensure our readiness so we can quickly respond should the virus present in Canada,” Tam told reporters.
“The risk of an outbreak in Canada remains low.”
While Tam confirmed a small number of possible cases continue to be monitored in Canada, she said there have been no confirmed instances of the virus here.
Tam’s update comes after the World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee opted not to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, but said in a statement Thursday that committee members agreed the urgency of the situation warranted that the committee reconvene in a matter of days to review the situation.
Meanwhile in China, millions in Wuhan and surrounding cities are on lockdown as authorities attempt to lessen the risk of the disease spreading. As of Thursday evening, international media was reporting 18 people have died as a result of the virus and some 600 more in China and surrounding countries have fallen ill.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. confirmed its first case of the virus. The new strain of coronavirus, part of the same family of viruses responsible for SARS, is believed to have been initially spread to humans by animals via a seafood market in Wuhan, but the WHO recently confirmed there has been limited human-to-human transmission.
The virus is respiratory in nature and presents with flu-like symptoms, progressing to pneumonia in some.
While there are no plans to stop flights between Canada and China, screening efforts will continue at Canada’s three international airports with direct flights from China, located in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, Tam said.
Large screens in arrival areas notify passengers of the symptoms and tell those who have travelled to affected areas and have symptoms to alert the border service agents. Those arriving in Canada are also asked at entry kiosks if they have travelled to the affected area in China.
“The border service officers are the first line of screening, if they see a sick person or a person declares they are sick then the quarantine service can be consulted,” Tam said.
Those who are asymptomatic are given information on what to do should they become sick in the two weeks after they return, and a number to call in their province that will connect them with local health authorities.
At this time, Tam said, it would be ineffective to treat asymptomatic travellers for the virus as it would be unlikely to be detected in lab tests at that point, however she acknowledged viruses are often the most contagious when they are asymptomatic.
She also said thermal scanners are unnecessary and largely ineffective.
Provinces on high alert
Tam said the public health agency has been in contact with the provinces from the day the new virus was first reported in order to disseminate crucial information to front line healthcare staff.
Key recommendations include getting the travel history of those entering the country, that front line health providers have information about the affected areas and that they should be looking for symptoms, Tam said.
“The Canadian health system is on alert.”
If there is concern a patient could be infected, provinces are able to test for other possible culprits like seasonal influenza or other respiratory infections, but Tam any confirmation testing for the novel coronavirus is done at the national microbiology lab in Winnipeg.
Tam said hospital staff are already quite well versed in both protecting themselves against any sort of viral illness and preventing the spread of diseases to the public.
“All hospitals should have standard infection prevention control measures, which include how to handle people who may be coughing or sneezing droplets at the route of transmission,” she said. “That’s actually relying on a foundational piece of policy and practice in infection prevention control.”
Tam said healthy members of the general public don’t need to wear any sort of surgical masks for protection, in fact, she said, masks can often have the opposite of the intended effect, especially flu season, as people tend to touch their faces more often when wearing them.
If a case does become confirmed in Canada, Tam said it won’t necessarily change the risk assessment for the county,
“The public health system is prepared for a potential identification of a traveller with this novel virus, given people travel,," she said.
"That doesn't mean the rest of the population is at risk."