OTTAWA — Shoppers across the country were loading carts with everything from gas cans to cat litter in response to warnings from top health officials to stock up on supplies in case of a major outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Canada.
Despite the low risk of contracting the virus in Canada, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu suggested last week that people stockpile food and medication in case they or a family member get sick and need to stay at home under quarantine.
“It’s good to be prepared because things can change quickly,” Hajdu said last week.
Social media posts over the weekend described “pandemonium” at some bulk-buying stores, like Costco, as people stocked up on toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and groceries.
Hajdu said her advice was meant to be practical, since people should always be ready for an emergency.
But Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Monday she doesn’t believe it’s necessary.
At a briefing where she confirmed three new cases of the virus in Ontario, Elliott urged people to go about their lives, while being cautious, and said anyone with symptoms should contact their local public health unit.
Federal Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux said he was caught off guard by the Hajdu’s message last week, especially since she reiterated for several weeks that the risk to Canadians was still low.
The message to stockpile can evoke a lot of public concern, he said, and he hasn’t heard any specific details to back it up.
“Food and medicine can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” Jeneroux said Monday. “We’d love to see more transparency in terms of what to expect. I think this is something most Canadians are curious about.”
He said a local pharmacy in his Edmonton riding recently ran out of masks because people felt the need to stock up on protective supplies, perhaps unnecessarily.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued a specific list of what people should gather to prepare for a potential pandemic, including a two-week supply of food and water, a continuous supply of prescription medication, and non-prescription health supplies like pain reliever, stomach remedies, cough and cold medicines, fluids with electrolytes, and vitamins. It also recommends people get copies of their health records.
Other health officials in Canada have also backed up Hajdu’s advice.
“People have seized on the idea that this is somehow new,” said Dr. Vera Etches, the head of Ottawa Public Health. “In fact, it’s not new.”
She said public health agencies warn all the time that people should have provisions for unexpected emergencies, including snowstorms, power outages and even possible pandemics.
Making sure people have enough supplies that they won’t have to dash out to the grocery store or the pharmacy if they or a loved one becomes ill is practical advice that’s always applicable, she said.
The difference this time, she said, is that people seem to be heeding it.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Mar. 2, 2020.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press