There were no confirmed cases of swine flu in Alberta at press time Monday, but family physicians across the province and Alberta Health Link phone lines were getting swamped with questions from the public.
The World Health Organization raised the level of pandemic alert from phase three to phase four Monday afternoon. Level four means that there has been verified human-to-human transmission of the virus, but it doesn’t mean a pandemic is a forgone conclusion.
There are currently 11 Red Deer College students, an instructor and volunteer in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, on a study tour.
RDC president Ron Woodward was in contact with the group by e-mail Monday and he said everyone is OK. He said the group is quite far from where the flu is prevalent. He said the students are around 300 kilometres from Mexico City, which is considered the worst area hit in the country.
As part of the tour, the early learning and child care students were set to visit Waldorf and Montessori programs, as well an orphanage and community agencies. Mexico has closed schools across the country until May 6 to try to stop the spread of the virus.
Woodward said the students, instructor and volunteer were initially supposed to come back on Saturday, but as a precautionary measure the college is making sure that they fly out on Wednesday.
There have been more 140 deaths as a result of swine flu in Mexico and 2,000 people have become ill in Mexico, a country with a population of more than 110 million people.
Forty cases have been confirmed in the United States and six in Canada — two in B.C. and four in N.S.
“The experience we have had so far from the United States, and the few cases we have had in Canada, the cases are actually quite mild. They are recovering quickly and we’re trying to figure out what the difference is between what is going on in Mexico and what is being observed in other parts of North America,” said Alberta’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. André Corriveau.
Corriveau wouldn’t say how many suspected cases of swine flu there were in the province, but he said he would let the public know immediately if any cases were confirmed.
At the moment the only way to test for the flu strain is to send samples to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, adding a couple of days to the time it takes to receive results. Later this week, the provincial lab in Alberta will be able to do the testing for the virus here in the province.
Corriveau said Alberta Health Link is looking at ramping up its supports by having extra people working the phone lines and more lines available.
Screeners have been put at ports of entry in the country, including both the Calgary and Edmonton airports, by the federal government to watch out for symptoms of the virus.
Leanne Schropfer, travel consultant with the Man with the Hat Travel in Red Deer, said she expects the situation could affect people’s travel plans. However, she said this time of year isn’t the busy season in Mexico.
She said she is directing people to the Public Health Agency website at www.phac-aspc.gc.ca for information on travel advisories.
“It’s their judgment call. I’m not going to say they cannot travel and I’m not going to say they have to travel,” Schropfer said. “It’s their choice, but I want them to be aware of what is going on.”
Andrew Hopkyns, director of business development for AMA Travel, said people have been phoning and are concerned.
Hopkyns said AMA Travel is advising people who are considering cancelling their flight or to wait to see if External Affairs or the Public Health Agency issue an official travel warning because then cancellation insurance will kick in.
Hopkyns said AMA Travel is contacting customers who have come back with any possible flu symptoms to immediately go see a health facility.
For customers travelling to Mexico City up to May 6, Air Canada was waiving change fees to allow travel plans at a later date and for those travelling to and from Mexico between now and April 30, with WestJet or WestJet Vacation, they could change the air portion of their travel at no charge.
Neither of the local school districts within Red Deer have had class trips to Mexico recently, although students may have travelled with their parents to the country during spring break.
Paulette Hanna, superintendent of the Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division, said the division sent a letter home to parents Monday letting them know that this was a concern and encouraging them and their children to follow the precautions of washing their hands and sneezing into their shoulder, rather than directly onto their hands.
Hanna said the Catholic division has been working on a pandemic plan for the past year and a half to two years, in consultation with the Alberta School Boards Association, the health region and Red Deer Public School District. “It is progressing very well and if we had to use it today we would be prepared,” she said.
Bruce Buruma, director of community relations with the Red Deer Public School District, said the school district will take its direction from the health region.
Alberta Education released a document on pandemic planning for schools in May 2008, which is one of the things the public school division has used in its planning, as well as meeting with the Alberta School Boards Association and the local health region.
“It’s in the very initial stages and we will keep a close eye on it, but we will take our lead from those who have the greatest knowledge and expertise,” Buruma said.
— with files from The Canadian Press