Canada has done a decent job of detecting patients arriving with the novel coronavirus, but COVID-19 is going to become more difficult to contain as it spreads globally, the country’s chief medical officer said.
Meanwhile, the head of the World Health Organization said that while it’s still too early to declare COVID-19 a pandemic, the sudden outbreaks in Italy, Iran and South Korea “are deeply concerning.”
“For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death,” WHO director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a briefing. “Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.”
As of Monday, China had reported about 77,362 cases of COVID-19 and 2,618 deaths. China’s unprecedented lockdown and restrictions may have blunted the coronavirus and averted hundreds of thousands of cases, according to a team of medical experts that visited the outbreak’s epicentre last week. However, the virus continues to spread, with Afghanistan, Bahrain and Kuwait reporting their first cases.
Speaking of the escalating number of cases, Canada’s chief medical officer Dr. Theresa Tam said countries need to be prepared.
“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 told media.
In Italy, six people have died after the country’s cases jumped to more than 200. South Korea has identified 763 cases, with 605 of them being transmitted within the country; seven people had died as of Monday morning. Iran has reported 43 cases and eight deaths.
South Korea declared the first red alert in the country since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu epidemic.
Kuwait’s civil aviation authority announced it suspended all flights to and from South Korea, Thailand and Italy.
And Air Canada said it would allow travellers to rebook flights to parts of Italy at no charge following the spike in coronavirus cases, making the country home to the biggest outbreak in Europe.
The Canadian government has updated its advice to travellers returning from abroad, asking them to monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19 for two weeks after they return, no matter where they travelled.
British Columbia has confirmed its seventh case of the coronavirus in a man in his 40s who had close contact with the woman diagnosed as the sixth case last week after she returned from Iran. The man had symptoms before the woman’s diagnosis and additional people who had contact with them are currently in isolation and being monitored, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
The total number of cases in Canada is now 11, with Ontario announcing its fourth case on Sunday. A Toronto woman in her 20s contracted a mild case while travelling in China. The woman 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. 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.
WHO executive director Dr. Michael J. Ryan said it’s impossible to tell if COVID-19 will eventually be contained, develop into a full-blown global pandemic, or settle down into a seasonal pattern of transmission, much like the flu. But now is the time for countries to prepare for the worst.
“We believe that all countries are vulnerable,” Ryan said. “It is time to do everything you would do in preparing for a pandemic.”
The window of opportunity for containment is closing
That means preparing to take and treat cases and putting in place adequate containment measures, he said, warning that healthcare systems in even the most developed countries are already strained.
The goal is to hold the virus off for as long as possible before it starts spreading from person to person within the country, Tam said. Getting past the flu season without a major outbreak would seriously ease the burden on hospitals.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Canadians remain in mandatory quarantine after being repatriated from Wuhan, China, and the Diamond Princess cruise ship near Japan, on which many people were stricken with the virus earlier this month.
All of the evacuees who returned to Canada 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 Tuesday, the second largest group of evacuees to be allowed to go home.
— With files from the Canadian Press, Bloomberg and Reuters