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Coronavirus in Canada: ‘We’re not out of the woods yet’

Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal remain on high alert, says provincial health officer


Wearing a mask in public or at work when you’re not feeling sick has no benefit, according to B.C.’s provincial health officer. (Maridav/Adobe Stock)

Over the past few weeks, health and safety deadlines across the globe have been dominated by the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, the capital city of China’s Hubei province.

In British Columbia, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been working hard to prevent the spread of the virus. To date, seven cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Canada — four in B.C. and three in Ontario.

On Feb. 13, OHS Canada caught up with Dr. Henry on her efforts in B.C.

OHS Canada: What is the current status on coronavirus as it relates to Canada’s response and continued monitoring?

Bonnie Henry: That’s a really important question. One of the things that has happened in the last few days is that the WHO (World Health Organization) has given it an official name as COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019. And the virus itself also has a new name. So instead of just novel coronavirus, we’re now calling it SARS-CoV-2. That reflects that the virus itself is a relative — a sister if you will — of the first SARS coronavirus that was identified in 2003 and caused an outbreak around the world.

About two and a half weeks ago, in China, there was a concerted effort to put in a lot of restrictive measures around the area of the epicentre of this outbreak and that’s Hubei province and in particular Wuhan city and a number of other very large cities in Hubei province in China. Millions of people are in a type of quarantine. This is an unprecedented global response from China to this outbreak that’s happening.

We have to recognize that that is a very extreme measure that most countries wouldn’t be able to take and there’s two things we may learn out of this. One is that this is our chance — and perhaps our only chance — to see if we can contain this virus and basically eradicate it from human-to-human transmission and push it back into nature. We will know within the next few weeks whether the measures are being effective and whether we can actually contain this virus. And that is something that we’re watching very carefully in Canada.

So what this means for us is we’re very much in containment mode in Canada, which means we’re being hypervigilant, watching for any signs of people who may be infected with this virus, and making sure that they are isolated away from others and that we prevent any transmission here. So far, that’s been effective. We’ve had seven cases that we recognized here in Canada. All of them have been isolated and people are recovering.

We’re doing OK, but there’s still a lot we don’t know. We’re not out of the woods by any means and we’re watching very carefully.

In Canada, the reaction to the virus has been wide-ranging. What is the most appropriate response for Canadians to coronavirus?

BH: For most of us here in Canada, this is a very low risk. It is a major issue in China in particular, and in a number of countries in that region, but particularly in Hubei province. In Canada, we need to be alert and watchful and monitoring what’s going on. For the most part right now, we need to take all of the regular measures that we do at this time of the year.

It’s flu season, so the things that we do to stay safe at this time of the year also help protect us against this virus. That’s washing your hands, cleaning your hands regularly, not touching your face or your eyes with your hands unless they’re clean — because that’s one way that can bring these viruses into our bodies, covering our mouth when we cough or sneeze, and if you’re sick yourself, having a very low threshold right now for staying home and staying away from others.

What role can employers play to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases in their workplaces?

BH: We’re in our cough-cold-flu season, so the things that we do in various workplaces are the things that we need to do to prevent influenza, and that will help with this coronavirus as well. So those are things like being able to clean your hands regularly, having policies that allow people to work from home, or stay home if they’re not feeling well. And with this COVID-19 sort of hanging over us, those are the things that we need to think about a little bit more.

Other things that are really important are making sure that you cover your cough or sneeze when you’re in a workplace environment so they’re not spreading droplets around; that you have the ability to clean areas — especially high-touch areas — that people use all the time like the bathrooms and the elevators and the coffee area. You might want to look at your cleaning processes and do it more frequently at this time of the year.

Right now, we’re still hoping that we might be able to contain this virus in China. But should it start to spread more widely in other countries, between people and communities around the world, the impact could be quite dramatic. So, it’s a time now for us to start planning for how we could try and minimize the potential for these types of viruses to spread in workplaces. And generally, that means things like social distancing, so part of it could be working at home. Part of it could be people coming in on shifts. Now’s the time to start thinking about those things. We’re not at the place where we need to put those measures in place in Canada right now, but it’s an opportunity for us to prepare, just in case.

What can employees themselves be doing to prevent the spread of infectious disease?

BH: We all have a responsibility to try and do our part to prevent infections in others. Part of that is covering your mouth when you sneeze, cleaning your hands regularly, cleaning your workspace. Really importantly — especially right now when we’re dealing with this issue — is having a very low threshold for staying home and staying away from others if you’re feeling sick yourself. And I’d also say looking at your children carefully, making sure kids — especially young children who may not be attuned to their body and may not recognize when they’re starting to feel ill — we need to have a very low threshold right now for keeping them and keeping ourselves away from others if we’re feeling sick.

Dr. Bonnie Henry is the provincial health officer in British Columbia. (Photo submitted)

Do employees in specific industry sectors such as health care or transportation face increased risk of this type of virus?

BH: Yes, definitely in the health-care sector. That’s one of the areas that we’ve been doing a lot of work on across Canada to prepare, but also to respond to people who need to be assessed right now. And we’ve tested hundreds of people across the country who have traveled primarily from the epicentre in China, but also other places where they may have had contact with somebody with coronavirus. If you are somebody yourself who has travelled and is sick, you need to put a mask on so that you’re not spreading your droplets to others when you go into the health-care sector.

For people who have face-to-face contact with others on a regular basis, and are shaking hands or interacting in schools, for example, really what you need to do in those situations is very much like we need to do when we’re at home. That’s frequent hand washing, covering your mouth when you cough, trying to stay away from others, being sure there’s things available for others to cough into — such as a tissue or into their sleeve, doing what you can do to clean your hands regularly because that’s one of the most common ways that we can get infected ourselves.

How effective are masks in the prevention of disease?

BH: Face masks have a really important role in the health-care world. We definitely need to have masks and N95 respirators that filter out small particles in the health-care sector to look after people.

Masks for people who are sick can help keep the droplets in, so you’re not spreading them to others. If you are feeling sick and need to be in close contact with family members, for example, or if you’re going to a health-care setting, putting a mask on can protect others from you.

But wearing a mask in public or at work when you’re not feeling sick yourself has no benefit that we aware of. It doesn’t necessarily prevent you from inhaling things. For many people — especially children — they can be irritating and you can actually touch your face more. That can be riskier because the outside of the mask can become contaminated and then if you’re fiddling with it or rubbing your eyes, you’re more likely to spread the germs into your body.

What types of precautions should those who deal directly with China be taking?

BH: Right now, because of all of the things that are going on in China, the Canadian government has advised against all but essential travel to China and advised against any travel to Hubei province. Employers and professionals need to respect that right now.

When we look at the impact of COVID-19 around the world, travel in other places is very safe, but we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to protect ourselves on airplanes, when we’re in business meetings. The same things around cleaning your hands, covering your cough, and if you’re not feeling well, to postpone or change your travel or maybe try and do it remotely.

Is British Columbia facing any unique issues as a result of coronavirus?

BH: We do have some unique issues in that the proportion of the population in British Colombia that has links and connection to China is higher than in many other parts of the country. But direct flights into Canada come to Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto at this time of year, so those three cities have similar issues in terms of travellers coming into the country from various areas in China.

But the proportion of people who are connected in B.C. is quite high, so we do get a lot of people here who have connections, who have family, loved ones who are going through some very extreme measures in China and we need to support them and help them. We also have a lot of people across the country who are returning from the lunar festival in China. So, we’ve been working across the country to support those people. But we’re really on high alert, particularly in Vancouver and in the Lower Mainland of B.C., in and around Toronto and in Montreal.

How much longer will Canada be on high alert?

BH: That is the big question. It’s going to be another few weeks before we have an idea for sure whether things are under control in China. The last few days, we’ve seen some positive signs, but we’re certainly not out of the woods yet.

And then it becomes a bigger question. If it starts to spread more widely in other communities — particularly other countries around the world — how do we make sure we’re protecting our communities here in Canada? Our health-care sector, so that we’re able to not only look after people with coronavirus, but also everybody else who has issues that need care?

Longer-term, we need to understand, even if we’re able to control this in China over the next few months, what’s going to happen next influenza season? Will this come back and start causing problems again? So, there’s a lot of unknowns still and it’s going to be some time before we really have a good idea of what’s going to happen over the next few weeks or months.

This Q&A session was conducted Feb. 13, 2020. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.