Coronavirus containment window shrinking as virus spreads to more countries

OTTAWA — Canada’s border measures to guard the country against incoming cases of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, will likely become less effective as transmission of the virus spreads to more countries outside of Canada, the country’s chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Monday.

Canada has so far been able to detect and isolate cases of coronavirus as patients arrive in Canada thanks, in part, to passenger screening at international airports. So far Canada has confirmed 10 cases of the virus, and none was transmitted within the country.

But the virus has begun to spread from person to person in several countries outside China, where COVID-19 was first detected. The last few days have seen sudden increases of cases in Italy, Iran and South Korea.

“These signs are concerning, and they mean that the window of opportunity for containment, that is for stopping the global spread of the virus, is closing,” Tam said. “It also tells countries like Canada, who have been able to detect and manage imported cases thus far, that we have to prepare.”

The main concern is that people without symptoms, or with only very mild symptoms, could be spreading the virus in countries that don’t have the means to detect cases, Tam said.

The government has also updated its advice to travellers returning from abroad and has asked them to monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19 for two weeks after they return, no matter where they travelled.

“We can highlight countries that are currently impacted by the coronavirus, but it is important when you travel anywhere to take these general precautions,” Tam said.

The most important action the government can take at airports is to educate people as they come into the country, Tam said, so they know what signs and symptoms to look for and what to do if they have concerns.

The World Health Organization says it’s still too early to declare COVID-19 a pandemic — the definition requires that a disease be detected just about worldwide — but the spread of the bug in multiple countries is a major concern.

“This is not the time to focus on what word we use. That will not prevent a single infection today, or save a single life today,” said WHO director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a briefing. “This is a time for all countries, communities, families and individuals to focus on preparing.”

Canada’s priority wouldn’t change even if a pandemic were declared, Tam said. The goal is still to hold the virus off for as long as possible before it starts spreading from person to person within the country.

“By delaying even a little bit we might be able to reduce the impact now, and making sure our health system has gone past influenza season is a very specific public-health objective,” she said.

Getting past the flu season without a major outbreak would seriously ease the burden on hospitals, she said.

This comes as another case of the virus was confirmed by health officials in Toronto, who said a woman in her 20s contracted a mild case while travelling in China. The woman had been in China since late last year, had travelled to Wuhan — the centre of the outbreak — before it was quarantined, then went elsewhere in the country before returning to Canada on Feb. 21.

“Given the fact that she actually is resolving and is quite well, the patient was discharged, was told to self-isolate and I’m pleased to say is presently recovering well at home and in isolation,” said Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s top public-health officer.

The woman wore a mask while travelling back to Canada, and a family member who picked her up from the airport also wore a mask, de Villa said.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, said given the limited contact with others and the woman’s mild illness, she likely presents a low risk.

Meanwhile hundreds of Canadians remain in mandatory quarantine after they were repatriated from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was stricken with the virus earlier this month.

All of the evacuees are in good health and show no signs of the virus, Tam said. Those from Wuhan who have been isolated in the Canadian Forces Base Trenton for two weeks are expected to be released tomorrow, the second large group of evacuees to be allowed to go home.

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