B.C. health officials still have a lot to learn about coronavirus

Information messages and screening questions will come to Vancouver airport this week, while hospitals and clinics are on alert.

Jennifer Saltman 4 minute read January 21, 2020

A quarantine notice about the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan, China at an arrival hall of Haneda airport in Tokyo. KIM KYUNG-HOON / REUTERS

Identification and containment are the goals for public health officials when it comes to dealing with a new coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, as the number of cases surged over the weekend.

But at this point in the outbreak, there are still more questions than answers about the virus, which causes respiratory illnesses like pneumonia.

“This is primarily a virus of particular interest because it is a novel, new coronavirus and we don’t want it to become established in the human population. So we are very focused on the early identification of cases and trying to contain those,” said Dr. Danuta Skowronski, lead of the influenza and emerging respiratory pathogens team at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Canada, although three people who had travelled to Wuhan were investigated as possibly having the virus, and were ruled out within the past week.

As of Monday, there were more than 200 confirmed cases in Wuhan, including three deaths. Cases were also reported in Beijing, Shenzhen and Shanghai.

Most cases have been linked to a market in Wuhan that sold live animals, but there has been limited person-to-person spread. It is believed that two people in Guangdong province caught the virus from family members, and some health-care workers have also become ill.

South Korea detected its first case over the weekend, following the spread of the virus to Japan and Thailand last week.

“While the risk of spread is considered low, the Public Health Agency of Canada is analyzing any potential risk to Canadians on a continuous basis,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, during a conference call on Monday.

Still, Tam said, out of an abundance of caution measures are being taken at hospitals and clinics, as well as three major airports, including Vancouver.

In the coming days, messaging will appear on arrivals screens at the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver airports reminding travellers from Wuhan to tell a border service officer if they have flu-like symptoms. A health screening question will also be added to electronic kiosks.

Anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms will be referred to a quarantine officer, while others will receive an information package.

“Entry screening alone is not a guarantee against the possible spread of this new virus, but is an important public health tool during periods of uncertainty and part of a multilayered government response strategy,” the Canada Border Services Agency said in a statement.

It’s expected that with the Lunar New Year beginning on Jan. 25, the number of travellers to, from and within China will significantly increase.

There are no restrictions on trade with or travel to affected areas.

The measures at Canadian airports are not as strict as in the U.S. and other countries, because there are no direct flights between Wuhan and Canada.

“It is important to take this seriously and be vigilant and be prepared, but I don’t think there is a reason for us to panic or be overly concerned,” said Tam.

“The key activities we are doing now is providing information to travellers, as well as preparing the health system to respond to any potential cases that could be related to travel to the affected area.”

On the health care side, Skowronski said bulletins have been distributed to doctors in hospitals and clinics to question people who present with respiratory illnesses about their travel history. In the community, people should take the usual flu-season precautions, such as washing their hands.

She said the efforts being undertaken are much like those used when trying to deal with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 that hit 37 countries, including Canada, and killed 774 people worldwide.

“This has reminiscences from that experience, but there’s also some differences,” said Skowronski, who was around for that outbreak. “This is not the SARS coronavirus, this is a different kind of new coronavirus, which means it will have different features that, as this is evolving, we need to understand better.”

Tom Koch, a professor of medical geography at the University of B.C., said experts will need to know more about the virus before taking further action. Disease origin, incubation period, reproduction rate, transmission, treatment and more are still being studied.

“We’re in that period of a new infectious disease where we’re watching, we’re waiting and we’re trying to learn, but what we know is outweighed by what we have yet to get to know,” he said.

“We’ve had the overture and now we’re waiting to see if we have a first act. That’s how it is with these viruses.”

Coronaviruses can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to SARS. Common signs of infection include fever, cough, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.




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