Canada prepares pandemic response plan as coronavirus cases continue to climb

Canada is preparing to respond to a possible pandemic as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb around the globe.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam says trajectory of COVID-19 still unknown

A worker in protective gear stacks plastic buckets containing medical waste from coronavirus patients at a medical center in Daegu, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (Lee Moo-ryul/The Associated Press)

Canada is preparing to respond to a possible pandemic as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb around the globe.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said the global threat posed by the novel coronavirus, which can lead to a respiratory illness called COVID-19, is evolving fast. While the outbreak continues to be contained mostly to the epicentre in Hubei, China, she noted that the virus is spreading now at the community level, person-to-person, in several other countries.

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam says it's too early to know the trajectory of the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"These signs are concerning, and they mean that the window of opportunity for containment ... for stopping the global spread of the virus, is closing," Tam told reporters in a teleconference Monday.

"It also tells countries like Canada, that have been able to manage and detect cases so far, that we have to prepare across governments, across communities, and as families and individuals, in the event of more widespread transmission in our community."

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, but so far hasn't declared it a pandemic.

Tam said the trajectory of the coronavirus is unknown at this time and it's possible that cases have occurred in other countries that don't have the proper tools to diagnose and contain it.

Canada developed a pandemic response plan in 2009, which would serve as the foundation for any shift in the official response to the current outbreak, she said.

The response plan includes accelerating research work here and contributing to international efforts to develop a vaccine abroad. Tam said it also could lead to expanding laboratory testing capabilities and access to diagnostic tools, and taking stock of essential supplies to make sure authorities don't run short. She added that Canada's course of action would be much the same whether the WHO declares a pandemic or not.

Containment efforts

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Monday that a pandemic declaration by the WHO would render travel restrictions meaningless because it would mean that efforts to contain the virus had failed.

"As the window closes in terms of stopping the global spread, as we watch the WHO assess whether or not this is a full pandemic, obviously our attention turns more toward our domestic preparedness and what Canada can do to make sure our system and structures are ready for a change in our own population," she said.

The WHO said today that China has reported 77,362 cases of COVID-19, including 2,618 deaths.

Outside China, there are now 2,074 cases in 28 countries, including 10 in Canada, and 23 related deaths.

Despite the rising numbers, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said officials are encouraged by the fact that the number of new cases continues to decline in China.

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The epidemic peaked between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2 and has been steadily declining since, he said.

Tedros said a decision on whether to declare a pandemic is based on an ongoing assessment of the geographical spread of the virus, the severity of the disease and its impact on society.

"For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death," he said.

Pandemic potential

"Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet."

Tedros said labelling the outbreak a pandemic could create unnecessary fear.

Tam said that the goal now is to slow the spread of the virus, adding it's difficult to stop its spread because more countries are reporting people with no or mild symptoms.

Canada has been successful so far in detecting imported cases and preventing person-to-person spread within communities, but is preparing for other scenarios, Tam said.

Tam said enhanced border control measures and messaging at airports will be broadened to include warnings to travellers returning from other countries with reported cases of coronavirus.

She said international travellers arriving at Canadian airports will be told to self-isolate if they're experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Tam said all travellers should take general precautions and plan ahead by, for instance, making sure they have enough medication for a trip.

She repeated the standard public health messages encouraging people to wash their hands frequently, cover coughs and sneezes, keep track of federal travel health advice posted online and share travel history with health-care providers in the event of becoming sick.

With files from the CBC's Amina Zafar