British Columbia

You could eventually be exposed to COVID-19, but panic can be scarier than the virus, say experts

A growing number of health experts are warning the COVID-19 virus is on the move and will likely infect a lot more people before it's done, including more Canadians. Here's what the experts are saying about the risk and the severity of the illness.

'I'm even more worried about .... governments overreacting to this virus, than the virus itself': expert

The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. (Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC/)

A growing number of health experts are warning the COVID-19 virus is on the move and will likely infect a lot more people before it's done, including more Canadians.

There have been 12 confirmed cases in Canada so far, seven of them from B.C.. Right now, the risk of exposure to is very low. But the novel coronavirus is undaunted by borders.

Its increasing spread worldwide has prompted some people to cancel travel plans to avoid the growing list of countries affected by the outbreak that began in China.

The virus has led to 2,595 deaths in China and 23 in other parts of the world, according to World Health Organization data released Feb. 24.

Spreading like a slow influenza pandemic

So far, COVID-19 has been less dangerous than feared, but it seems more infectious than other coronaviruses like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), according to Dr. Michael Gardam, chief of staff at Toronto's Humber River Hospital.

"SARS was actually quite hard to catch. MERS was quite hard to catch. This coronavirus is clearly easy to catch and it's spreading like a slow influenza pandemic right now," said Gardam, an infectious disease specialist who was on the frontlines of the SARS outbreak.

"If none of us have antibodies [to COVID-19] then the majority of the world is going to become infected with this at some point. "

"On a global scale — even though the risk to you and me is small — the risk to the earth's population [translates into] 10s of millions of people," Gardam said in an interview Wednesday.

'Stop dragging feet'

Gardam is urging the World Health Organization to "stop dragging its feet" and label the outbreak a pandemic as was done during the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 that killed more than 200,000 people worldwide.

"The risk [of COVID-19] to Canadians is low at this moment in time, but that's now. The analogy I give is there is a tidal wave on the horizon. It hasn't hit you yet, but it's going to hit you."

Other countries have seen communities on lock down, 14-day self-isolations after travel and Gardam says it's time Canadians prepare mentally how to deal with a similar outbreak here.

A lot of Canadians may be too sick to go to work, hospitals could be overwhelmed, and school and large gatherings may need to be cancelled, he said.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 26: Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear spraying anti-septic solution to fight the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a traditional market on February 26, 2020 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Despite the growing number of confirmed infections, B.C. health authorities are urging people not to panic.

The majority of people exposed to the COVID-19 virus do not have serious symptoms.

Réka Gustafson, the deputy provincial health officer for B.C. says people do not need to cancel travel plans unless there is an official travel advisory.

She says the focus has been to contain the virus, especially when it first emerged and it was unclear how dangerous it would be.

When a virus is new to the human population, nobody has immunity built up, and vaccines to protect the vulnerable do not work.

But Gustafson said a lot has been learned since the WHO declared a public health emergency in late January and nations began sharing information about those affected.

At that point in time, 213 people had died in China, and 10,000 were infected. It's clear now COVID-19 is deadliest to people in poor health.

There's a range of outcomes — not unlike the flu — with 80 per cent of those infected showing no serious symptoms, and about 15 per cent having severe symptoms.

"It would not be treated any differently than a cold or the flu. The vast majority of people stay at home and recover," she said.

In a small percentage of cases, the virus can cause pneumonia or organ failure. Complicating matters, when fighting viral pneumonia, antibiotics do not help.

Despite the growing number of infections, Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University, said that most people are at higher risk of death driving in everyday traffic in Canada.

COVID-19 seems scary, but no need for panic

Hoffman says once it's confirmed that containment has failed then health authorities will move away from enforced isolations and more toward mitigation, using handwashing and other ways to avoid the spread, as is done with seasonal flu outbreaks.

"These kind of outbreaks are the new normal. We live in a globalized world." he said.

He agrees that COVID-19 will spread further, but worst-case scenarios only see it affecting half the world, he said.

Hoffman says he is concerned about governments going overboard with mobility restrictions, keeping children from going to school and adults from work.

"It can be scary, because we don't know everything about it. But just because this is a new risk, doesn't mean it's a greater risk. I'm even more worried about the harm of governments overreacting to this virus than the virus itself," said Hoffman.

And if the virus does turn into a pandemic, Hoffman says, Canada is a safe, well-prepared place to be.

"Canada would be at the top of my list," he said.


Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist.


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