Containment efforts will delay, not prevent, COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, Hajdu warns
Health authorities hope delay will buy time to get hospitals through the busy flu season
Robust efforts are underway to delay the spread of the new coronavirus that is spreading around the world, but Canadians should prepare for the "eventuality" of a domestic COVID-19 outbreak, says Health Minister Patty Hajdu.
Speaking at a briefing on the government's response to the health crisis, Hajdu said the pressing goal is to contain and delay an outbreak to give the health-care system time to get through a "significant" influenza season.
"If we can delay community transmission to beyond the normal typical flu season, then we can provide some slack in the health-care system to address things like shortages of beds and the burden on health-care systems that often times flu season exacerbates," she said.
But Hajdu warned efforts can only delay the inevitable.
"This is a virus that knows no borders, and that is growing. Each day there are countries that have new cases and new outbreaks and new situations," she said.
"We know that eventually this is likely something that we'll see in one of our communities."
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said authorities at all levels of government have been adapting Canada's "well-established and tested" pandemic influenza preparedness plan to respond to the specific challenges of COVID-19.
Authorities are taking stock of what resources may be needed and what contingency plans may need to come into effect, such as postponing elective surgeries to free up hospital beds.
Tam said everyone has a role to play in managing the response, from taking precautions like washing hands and coughing into elbows, to refraining from showing up at the emergency room when you may be sick with COVID-19.
"Call ahead and make sure you're not negatively impacting those health-care facilities," she said.
Tam said the vast majority of people infected with the virus show very mild symptoms and can be cared for in the community, reserving scarce hospital resources for those who really need them.
Earlier Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new cabinet committee to co-ordinate Canada's response to COVID-19, warning that the global outbreak could take a heavy economic toll on Canadian industries such as travel, tourism and manufacturers that rely on a Chinese supply chain.
Speaking at an event in Saint-Jérôme, Que., Trudeau said many people and industries are seeing "challenging situations" because of the new coronavirus that is spreading around the world.
"This is not a situation that Canada created, but it is a situation we are going through and we will continue to work with our partners, with communities, with industry to ensure that we're minimizing the impact and the disruption on Canadians," he said.
Trudeau pointed to the travel and tourism sector, as well as any businesses that rely on parts or supplies from China, as particularly vulnerable to a slowdown.
The new cabinet committee tasked with overseeing Canada's response to COVID-19 will co-ordinate efforts to limit the health and economic effects of the virus.
"We recognize that basing our decisions on evidence, on facts, on the best science available is going to be extremely important for keeping Canadians safe," he said.
The committee, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, will complement the work done by the Incident Response Group, meeting regularly to co-ordinate and prepare for a response to the health and economic impacts of the virus.
'Whole of country' approach
On Wednesday, Freeland called for a "whole of country" approach to battle the virus.
"This is a situation which, of course, is a public health situation; it's a situation which has economic consequences, which has international relations consequences, and I think all of us are first of all going to need to take some personal responsibility," she said.
"Dr. Tam has offered some very clear and specific things each one of us should be doing, and we're all going to have to be co-ordinating very closely. That is something we have already been doing and it's something that I think we are going to continue to do in a very stepped up way."
'All possible measures' to limit COVID-19 impact
Trudeau said the committee will work with provincial, territorial and international partners to make sure Canada's response "takes all possible measures to prevent and limit the spread of the virus in Canada."
Other ministers on the eight-member committee include Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair and Finance Minister Bill Morneau.
Kirsty Duncan, deputy government House leader and scientist who wrote a book on the origins of the 1918 Spanish flu, will also be a core participant of the meetings.
Central bank cuts interest rate
Morneau scheduled a teleconference with his provincial and territorial counterparts Wednesday to discuss the economic impact of COVID-19.
Earlier Wednesday, the Bank of Canada cut its key interest rate target by half a percentage point in response to what it called the "material negative shock" from the outbreak.
In a statement about the cut, the bank said that before the outbreak, Canada's economy had been operating "close to potential with inflation on target."
"However, COVID-19 represents a significant health threat to people in a growing number of countries. In consequence, business activity in some regions has fallen sharply and supply chains have been disrupted. This has pulled down commodity prices and the Canadian dollar has depreciated," the statement reads.
There have now been 33 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada; 20 in Ontario, 12 in British Columbia and one in Quebec.