Risk of coronavirus remains low in Sask., but fearful patients could fill hospitals: psychologist

A University of Regina psychology professor says fear of coronavirus could lead to full emergency rooms in the province.

Chief medical health officer says people should stay home if sick

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, says the province is working to ensure it could handle an influx of coronavirus cases at Saskatchewan's hospitals, such as St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon, pictured here. (Morgan Modjeski/CBC)

While there have been no reported cases of the coronavirus in Saskatchewan so far, a University of Regina psychology professor says fear of the virus could lead to full emergency rooms in the province.

Gordon Asmundson, who studies the psychological factors of epidemics and pandemics, said worry can play a large role in how people respond to outbreaks. 

During outbreaks, it's typical that some people don't pay attention, some prepare a little bit, and some prepare in a way that's excessive, he said.

That could mean mean healthy people, or those with the seasonal flu, begin to fear they are sick with the novel virus that causes the coronavirus disease COVID-19. 

"It's possible that people may be rushing themselves or their loved ones to the ER, or at least to the doctor's office, and that those resources can become overburdened if we're not prepared," said Asmundson, who wrote a paper titled Coronaphobia: Fear and the 2019-nCoV outbreak, which was published in the March edition of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders.

Dr. Gordon Asmundson is a professor at the University of Regina, a mental health scientist and a registered clinical psychologist. He studies the psychological factors of epidemics and pandemics. (University of Regina Photography)

The province's Ministry of Health said it is prepared for a possible influx of patients. 

While there are no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Saskatchewan yet, there are now 30 cases in Canada: 20 in Ontario, nine in British Columbia and one in Quebec. There have not been any deaths in this country linked to COVID-19.

Province updating pandemic plan

Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said the ministry is refreshing its pandemic plan to make sure it could handle a surge, if an outbreak like the one seen in Italy were to happen in Saskatchewan. 

"It would be very tough to manage," said Shahab. "Increasing your surge capacity four or five times higher than what you need in a regular flu season is not a trivial thing.

"It can be done, but it has to be planned for and not thought about when you're actually having the issue, so that's the planning that's being done right now."

The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 an international health emergency, but has so far not called it a "pandemic."

Saskatchewan's pandemic plan was last updated in 2009-10, during the outbreak of H1N1, Shahab said. 

"They say if you haven't had a pandemic in 10 years, you should plan for one."

Shahab urges everyone to wash their hands, cough into their sleeves, stay home if they are sick and practise 'social distancing' in public places. (CBC)

Hospitals in the province are already operating at capacity, but Shahab said beds not being used for acute care could be freed up if needed.

He said data from China shows that about 80 per cent of those infected are fine at home, 20 per cent need hospital care and five per cent of those in hospital need to be in an intensive care unit.

He said coronavirus patients could be restricted to one dedicated floor of a hospital, as is done when flu cases are high. 

He urges everyone to wash their hands, cough into their sleeves, stay home if they are sick and practise "social distancing" in public places. 

30% of Canadians worried about contracting virus: poll

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said there are 90,893 reported COVID-19 cases globally, with 3,119 deaths. Most of those cases and deaths were reported in China, but there are an increasing number of countries reporting cases of COVID-19. 

The director general of the World Health Organization said that shortages of supplies like gloves are leaving health workers "dangerously ill-equipped" to care for patients.

An Angus Reid online poll of 1,354 Canadian adults conducted early last month found that 30 per cent of respondents said they were worried they might contract the virus, and seven per cent said they were "very concerned" about becoming infected. 

At the time of the poll, which was conducted on Feb. 4 and 5, only four Canadians were infected.

Forty-one per cent of poll respondents said since hearing about the outbreak, they were washing their hands more often, 12 per cent said they avoided public places and three per cent had purchased a face mask.

"There appears to be a lot more concern about COVID-19 relative to the seasonal flu, although the numbers suggest that the seasonal flu … has led to far more cases and far more deaths," said Asmundson.

"We're much more fearful of COVID-19 because we don't know much about it."

Online, lists detailing items for "coronavirus survival kits" are circulating. 

An empty shelf designated for Lysol wipes at a Vancouver Superstore on Monday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"People are going out and preparing, stockpiling things like toilet paper and bottled water, things of that nature," said Asmundson. 

"That may or may not be necessary at this point, although we've been told we should get some non-perishable supplies in case we have to self-isolate."

Shahab said people should have some dry rations at home, along with at least a two-week supply of their prescription medication in case they cannot leave. 

He did reiterate that there is a low risk of catching the virus in Canada, and specifically in Saskatchewan. 

"I'm not overly concerned about it so no, we haven't done anything to prepare in our household," said Kelsey Gallagher, who was shopping at a Regina Superstore on Monday.

"No. 1 … Regina's small. No. 2, I typically don't worry about pandemics or major medical emergencies." 

"Saskatchewan just seems safe," said another Superstore shopper. 

But according to the February Angus Reid poll, a third of people said they were not confident that the health-care system in their community was prepared to deal with new cases of the coronavirus.

NDP calls for regular coronavirus updates

During question period at the Saskatchewan Legislature Monday, NDP Leader Ryan Meili called on the provincial government to release regular updates on the status of coronavirus preparedness measures.

"We have emergency rooms that are already overcrowded and overstressed.… That's a very dangerous situation if you have a new major virus," the Opposition leader told reporters.

"This is a time to make sure that we've got the primary care in the community, and the emergency care capacity to deal with an influx of new cases like this."

Health Minister Jim Reiter said the government is preparing, using the 2003 SARS outbreak as an example. He said there has been no money allocated specifically toward coronavirus preparedness yet, but said he told Shahab that more resources can be provided if needed.

Asmundson said he is preparing to do more research to assess fear and anxiety levels around COVID-19 in Canada and the U.S., as well as xenophobia or discrimination against groups suspected of having the virus. 


Alex Soloducha is a reporter, social media producer and digital producer for CBC Saskatchewan. She was part of a team that won a Canadian RTDNA award for a digital COVID-19 Kids Q&A. She can be reached at and follow on TikTok @cbcsasknews.

With files from Thomson Reuters