Coronavirus risk in Canada remains low despite second case, feds say

TORONTO — The country’s top public health official offered further reassurances to Canadians on Monday that the risk from a new form of coronavirus remains minimal despite the discovery of a second presumptive case.

Dr. Theresa Tam said the two diagnoses involve a married couple from Toronto who recently returned from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the global outbreak. A man in his 50s was confirmed as Canada’s first official coronavirus patient earlier in the day, while the first of two rounds of tests indicates his wife has also contracted the illness.

Tam said the likely diagnosis of a second case has not changed her view that the risk of contracting the virus remains low in Canada, noting the two instances follow a reassuring pattern.

“Transmission of the virus is occurring among family members who have close and prolonged exposure to sick individuals,” Tam said in a teleconference. “Canadians should not be concerned that they can pick up the virus from an infected individual by any casual contact, such as walking through the airport or another public place.”

Tam confirmed the couple, both believed to be in their 50s, returned to Toronto on Jan. 22 after a visit to China that included a stay in Wuhan, where the new strain of coronavirus is believed to have originated.

She said the man showed signs of a mild cough on the flight, and he and his wife both disclosed their recent travel history upon landing at Pearson International Airport.

Health officials in Ontario have said both husband and wife wore protective masks during the journey back to Canada, a step the medical community has said can be helpful in preventing the spread of the illness.

Both federal and provincial officials have said the man sought hospital treatment for deteriorating symptoms the day after returning home, prompting paramedics to arrive on scene wearing protective equipment.

His status as the country’s first prospective coronavirus case was announced on the weekend but confirmed on Monday by Ontario’s senior public health officials.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the province’s associate chief medical officer of health, said the confirmation resulted from tests at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. The man initially tested positive at a provincial facility, as did his wife days later.

Tam said Monday the woman’s case is now awaiting confirmation at the national level, noting the lab is currently testing 25 samples from multiple provinces.

The man remains at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital receiving treatment, while his wife is in “self-isolation” at home, officials said.

Yaffe said several other prospective patients have been tested at the provincial level in recent days, with coronavirus being eliminated in at least 15 cases. Results are still pending for 19 others, she added.

“The good news here is that there is ongoing, active monitoring,” she said. “People are self-identifying and we continue to make sure the system is working.”

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said the patients currently being tested reside throughout the province, though many are concentrated in Toronto.

Mayor John Tory said he’s requested that all public health information related to coronavirus be translated into “languages other than English or French” to ensure the city’s diverse population can stay informed.

Echoing public health officials who stress the risk of contracting coronavirus remains low, Tory urged residents to maintain business as usual.

“Be careful, be vigilant, but you don’t have to change your life at the moment,” he said.

Federal officials said Sunday they were reaching out to passengers who travelled on the same China Southern Airlines flight with the couple and sat within two metres of them.

Williams said those who are not currently exhibiting the flu-like symptoms consistent with coronavirus are likely not contagious.

“If somebody does not have symptoms, they usually are not shedding,” he said, adding researchers are continually studying the virus and becoming more familiar with its characteristics.

The new form of coronavirus, a close cousin to respiratory illnesses such as SARS and MERS, originated in China and has spread rapidly in recent weeks.

Officials in that country have reported the illness has killed at least 81 people and infected more than 2,750 others. Several countries throughout Asia, Europe and North America have also confirmed cases of the illness. It remains to be seen whether the virus is as dangerous as the common flu, which kills thousands every year in Canada alone.

Yaffe said all cases outside of China so far include a travel history to that country, adding that Ontario emergency dispatchers have now been instructed to ask about that issue while screening calls from those showing signs of a respiratory illness.

Tam said a committee including officials from federal, provincial and territorial governments will be established on Tuesday to help share information.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2020.

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press


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