‘It’s a matter of where and when’: Ontario’s top doctor says province is prepared for coronavirus

Toronto Public Health says they are ready for the coronavirus – due in large part to lessons learned during the SARS outbreak. Melissa Nakhavoly with what steps officials say they are taking to contain, and watch for, a spread of the virus.

By News Staff and The Canadian Press

Canadians have no need to worry about the prospect of mass quarantines, even in the likely event the coronavirus is discovered here, public health authorities said on Friday.

They said scary images coming from a now isolated Wuhan, a Chinese city with 11 million people, will not be repeated here.

“Absolutely not,” Dr. Peter Donnelly, with Public Health Ontario, said. “If a case comes here, and it is probably likely that we will have a case here, it will still be business as normal.”

In addition to Wuhan, where the virus outbreak has been concentrated, China has shut transportation in at least 12 other cities home to more than 36 million people. Bustling streets, malls and other public spaces have turned eerily quiet, masks are mandatory in public, and some hospitals have run low on medical supplies.

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health believes it’s just a matter of time until the coronavirus spreads to Canada, but he says the province is prepared, in large part because of our experience with SARS in 2003.

“Our preparedness is set in place,” Dr. David Williams said Friday morning. “Through SARS and through all the work later, we have set in place standard policies and procedures.”

“We still haven’t seen a case (of coronavirus), my guess is we will,” he added. “It’s a matter of where and when.”

“I am glad to say, the machinery is in place, it’s working. (We’re) light years ahead of what we faced back in 2003 (with SARS).”

The coronavirus has killed 26 people so far and the number of confirmed cases has risen to 830, China’s National Health Commission said.

“There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Toronto,” Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa stressed. “I also advise you that the overall risk to our residents at this time is still considered low.”

“We do know that Toronto’s Pearson Airport is an international travel hub,” she added. “So I think it’s important that you know we are actively monitoring the situation in concert with our federal and provincial health partners.”

Dr. Peter Donnelly, with Public Health Ontario, said the situation is now very different from what it was during SARS. He said authorities are much better prepared than they were for SARS: Communications are more robust, hospitals have better isolation facilities if needed, and a reliable test is available to detect the coronavirus within 24 hours.

“This was a disease unknown to science only two weeks ago and we now have the full genetic fingerprint of the virus and we have a test, which is specific and reliable,” Donnelly said. “In situations like this, speed and certainty are both very important.”

In addition, he said, health officials were working with the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg to develop an even quicker test.

The federal government has beefed up measures at major airports in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

Visitors are now being asked about any travel to Wuhan in the past 14 days and a positive response would trigger further investigation.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Eliott said border agents will decide if a traveller needs an immediate medical assessment and treatment. An ambulance would take the person from the airport directly to hospital. Fact sheets are also being prepared, she said.

The Wuhan outbreak is suspected to have begun from wild animals sold at a food market in the city.

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, transportation in China was shut down in at least 13 cities home to more than 36 million people. The cities are Wuhan, where the illness has been concentrated, and nine of its neighbours in central China’s Hubei province.

Initial symptoms can mirror those of the cold and flu, including cough, fever, chest tightening and shortness of breath, but can worsen to pneumonia.

Toronto’s medical officer of health urged people to ensure they are consulting credible information sources on the outbreak. Good places for solid information include websites of the Public Health Agency of Canada, Public Health Ontario and Toronto Public Health, de Villa said.

“I ask members of the public to rely on evidence-informed, credible sources of information when you’re looking for updates,” de Villa said.

De Villa stressed the importance of practising good hygiene to prevent transmission of viruses. Simple steps include washing hands thoroughly, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home if you’re ill.

While the World Health Organization has decided for now against declaring the coronavirus outbreak a global emergency, Donnelly said public health authorities were still doing everything they can to ensure any cases here are dealt with effectively.

“We are not complacent, we’re working extremely hard on this but we are quietly confident that we can handle this,” Donnelly said. “It’s our job to have the back of the people … and to keep them safe.”

Canada’s chief medical officer has said the chances of a outbreak here were low. Health officials note the common cold comes from the same family as the latest coronavirus and that influenza virus kills thousands of Canadians every year.

On Friday, Quebec health officials said coronavirus tests on six travellers from China under observation in Montreal and Quebec City hospitals had come back negative.

Dr. Horracio Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health, said earlier in the week the six had landed in Quebec with symptoms associated with the illness. Arruda said vigilance is key.

“There’s no reason for fear because sometimes the epidemic of fear is greater than what is going on,” he said.

With files from The Associated Press

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