Risk of new coronavirus spreading to the North low, say territories' top doctors

Tourists in Yellowknife expressed mixed feelings about the new coronavirus outbreak on Tuesday. Sandy Lee, a traveller from San Francisco with roots in Hong Kong, said she’s 'getting nervous.'

Front-line health practitioners being told to ask patients about recent travel to Wuhan, China

Yellowknife tourist Sandy Lee, a traveller from San Francisco with roots in Hong Kong, said she's concerned about the coronavirus. The N.W.T. chief public health officer said risk of it spreading to the territory is low. (Katie Toth/CBC)

Health officials in the Northwest Territories and Yukon say the risk of the new coronavirus spreading to the territories is probably low.

Dr. Kami Kandola, the N.W.T.'s chief public health officer, said her office is monitoring the situation and that right now, the majority of reported cases globally are related to exposure in Wuhan, the city in mainland China where the virus was first reported.

There are no direct flights to Canada from Wuhan, said Kandola, and Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver airports are screening travellers who are at risk.   

"It's just important that the initial ports of entry won't be through Yellowknife, Northwest Territories — it will be through these larger cities," she said. 

We don't want to miss that case, should it arrive.- Brendan Hanley, Yukon chief medical officer

The coronavirus belongs to a large family of viruses that cause illnesses ranging in severity; from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), says the Public Health Agency of Canada. Coronavirus is not currently as serious as SARS, said Kandola, but it's likely the cause of a cluster of pneumonia cases.

As of Jan. 20, 282 cases of the virus were confirmed, and six people had died, according to the World Health Organization. Outside of China, cases have been confirmed in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the United States, and all are linked to people who had travelled from mainland China

Travellers wearing protective masks walk at the check-in area of the Daxing international airport in Beijing on Jan. 21. As of Jan. 20, 282 cases of the coronavirus were confirmed, and six people had died, according to the World Health Organization. ( Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

"The situation right now, from the Public Health Agency of Canada is that the risk is extremely low," said Kandola. However, she added, that can change with the Lunar New Year on Jan. 25, when millions of people travel around China and abroad. 

"We don't know what the situation is going to be after that," she said. 

Kandola urges people travelling between Canada and China to look at travel advice issued by the Canadian government.

In Yukon, chief medical officer Brendan Hanley said the risk of seeing the virus in Yukon is "probably fairly low," but said it's worth being vigilant.

"I mean, look how kind of random it was that it showed up in Seattle. It's something we need to be vigilant for, prepared for ... We don't want to miss that case, should it arrive," he said.

Tourists in N.W.T. have mixed feelings

At the Nova Hotel in Yellowknife on Tuesday, tourists expressed mixed feelings about the coronavirus outbreak. 

Sandy Lee, a traveller from San Francisco with roots in Hong Kong, said she's "getting nervous." 

Our friends in China, they still travel.- Bing Yem, tourist in Yellowknife

"Hopefully we can prepare," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't know, because now Chinese New Year is coming up [and] people will be going back to their own region to visit their relatives."

Bing Yem is a visitor from Toronto whose family is originally from mainland China. 

"We can manage the situation ... no worries," he said, adding he believes China's government will be able to control the situation. "Our friends in China, they still travel," he said.

Practise good coughing, sneezing etiquette

The symptoms of coronavirus mimic other common viruses, such as a fever, coughing and shortness of breath, said Kandola. 

She said people can protect themselves and others by washing their hands regularly and for at least 20 seconds, and by coughing and sneezing into a tissue or their elbow. They should also avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. 

While the risk of catching the new virus is low, other viruses, such as influenza and pertussis (whooping cough) are circulating around the territory. Kandola said people with cold- and flu-like symptoms should stay home, and if their symptoms are severe, they should go to the emergency room.

Front-line health practitioners are being told to ask patients about their recent travel history to Wuhan, said Kandola. 

With files from Katie Toth, Loren McGinnis, Rachel Zelniker, Christine Genier and Sidney Cohen


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