Canada is preparing to respond to the prospect of a global pandemic as cases of the COVID-19 pathogen have spread to at least 50 countries.
Yesterday, Feb. 26, the World Health Organization noted there have been more positive cases of the novel coronavirus outside of China than inside the country. That’s significant because where once China was the sole epicentre of the virus, now health authorities fear multiple outbreaks in such countries as Iran, Italy, South Korea and Japan.
“This virus will show up,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, a renowned epidemiologist with the World Health Organization who recently led a team to China to study the virus.
"This is going to come soon, potentially. You've got to be shifting to readiness, rapid-response thinking."
In a call with reporters on Thursday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the period of containment was near an end and that it was time to shift into figuring out how to manage the eventual spread of the virus.
“These recent developments are concerning as they indicate that the window of opportunity to contain the spread of the virus globally is closing,” said Dr. Tam, adding that she and the rest of the Public Health Agency of Canada have not yet abandoned efforts at containment.
A few more weeks of containment, said Dr. Tam, can help delay a possible outbreak and give health authorities a little more time to prepare for any potential outbreak.
The timing could be critical. At this moment, provincial health systems across the country are already disproportionately burdened with patients due to the annual influenza season. Any delay, said Dr. Tam, would lighten that load.
Here in the Tri-Cities, a bulletin was sent to public schools informing them that a confirmed sixth case of coronavirus in the province had come in contact with people who may have later attended school in the region. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry would not identify what school or municipality in Fraser Health was under scrutiny for COVID-19 exposure, citing privacy concerns.
"There is no public health risk at schools in the region. There is also no evidence that novel coronavirus is circulating in the community," wrote Ingrid Tyler, a medical health officer for Fraser Health, in the Jan. 21 letter.
In the days since, a seventh case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in the province -- this one linked to the woman who may have indirectly been in contact with someone who went to an SD43 school. That puts the Canada-wide total at 11 confirmed positives.
So far, there has been no clinically tested treatment for COVID-19 and many experts say a vaccine is still a year away. And while it’s impossible to say if the virus will reach pandemic proportions before we move into the warmer months — at which point, the spread of respiratory viruses are generally suppressed — any delay could help.
Experts at AccuWeather, who have studied the transmission patterns of past viruses such as SARS in 2003 and the Spanish Flu in 1918 — an outbreak which killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people — found that weather could have an impact on how COVID-19 is transmitted. But at this point, according to AccuWeather Founder and CEO Dr. Joel N. Myers, officials and the medical community just don't know enough about the virus.
“It is possible that even if it is found that the sun and warmth slows it down but does not stop it, then once we go into declining sunlight again in September and October — like we saw with the Spanish Flu in 1918 — it could erupt in an enormous fashion because a vaccine still may not have been developed according to the experts," Dr. Myers told Castanet earlier this month.
In the meantime, Dr. Tam recommends Canadians plan for the possibility that someone they live or work with gets sick. That means figuring out what to do with children if schools are closed, or how to manage work if you fall ill with the virus.
Earlier this week, a U.S. official reportedly told Congress the country has a stockpile of about 30 million N95 masks, but might need as many as 300 million during an outbreak.
Should an infectious disease outbreak or natural disaster hit Canada, provinces can request the Canadian government supply them with emergency supplies through what’s known as the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile.
Supplies include medical equipment like ventilators; protective equipment, including masks, gloves and disposable gowns; and pharmaceuticals like antibiotics and antivirals. The stockpile also includes beds, towels, blankets and generators.
But in responding to questions from reporters, Dr. Tam — whose agency helps coordinate provincial health systems at a national level — was still working on an inventory of how many N95 masks were stockpiled across the country and how many of the masks health care systems would need in the event of a pandemic.
She said the Public Health Agency of Canada can provide some limited surge supply of medical equipment to provinces and territories, but that its capability is limited when it comes to providing daily supplies to entire health systems during an outbreak.
“Our primary focus really is on some sort of rare high impact event, including a biological, chemical [or] radiological event,” she said.
— With files from The Canadian Press and Castanet
TRACK THE CORONAVIRUS OUTBREAK
The novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV is thought to have made the jump to humans in a Wuhan seafood market, where live, wild animals are kept in close proximity with food. This month, the spread of the virus has prompted an unprecendented quarantine in China that has ground rail, bus and airplane travel to a halt. Outside of China, the outbreak has spread to several countries across multiple continents.
You can track its progress through this interactive map created and updated by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering using data provided by the World Health Organization, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S., the National Health Commission of the People's Republic of China, and Dingxiangyuan, a social networking site for health care professionals that provides real-time information on cases.
(Note: You can toggle between desktop and mobile versions of the map from the dropdown menu in the upper right-hand corner.)