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Coronavirus: 3 Canadian airports ramp up screening process for travellers

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Airports in major Canadians cities will be ramping up screening processes for arrivals amid fears that a coronavirus, which has killed at least a dozen people in China, could spread farther internationally.

In a statement to Global News, the Canadian Border Services Agency said it is working with the Public Health Agency of Canada in efforts to stop the illness from potentially coming to Canada.

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It noted that in the coming days, all international travellers arriving in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver international airports will be asked additional screening questions to determine if they have visited the city of Wuhan in China, where the outbreak was first reported.

“The aim of the question is to help identify travellers from Wuhan for closer screening upon their arrival in Canada,” CBSA’s email statement said.

“Travellers who have visited Wuhan will be subject to additional screening to help prevent the possible spread of this infectious disease into Canada.”

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None of the Canadian airports operate direct flights to Wuhan, but the CBSA said there is a “high likelihood that travellers on connecting flights from Wuhan will be arriving in Canada.”

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Those experiencing flu-like symptoms will be referred to the public health agency’s quarantine officer, the statement added.

There are also awareness campaigns planned for the airports, including signage that is expected to be posted by next week.

Allison McGeer, an infectious disease expert at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, explained that screening for passengers who had been in Wuhan will likely involve them having their temperatures taken, and being asked several questions.

McGeer noted that screening does come with limitations, and cannot fully prevent a virus from spreading.

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“It obviously misses people who are not ill yet when they come off the plane. And it detects a lot of other people who have other illnesses at this time of year, mostly influenza,” she said.

The screening is especially helpful when it comes to detecting the geographic spread of infections, McGeer said.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the risk for Canadians contracting the novel coronavirus remains low.

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, said the country is in a much better position to respond to the outbreak compared to 17 years ago when severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, killed more than 900 people globally, including 44 in Canada.

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Williams said researchers have already identified the new virus, and a method to test for it is already being used, which wasn’t the case for the initial stages of the SARS outbreak.

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Several major airports around the world, including London’s Heathrow and New York’s John F. Kennedy, have also implemented additional screening amid the outbreak.

At Heathrow, where there are direct flights from Wuhan, arriving passengers will disembark planes in a separate part of the airport, The Guardian reported. Passengers will be met by health care professionals, including doctors, who will check for symptoms of the virus.

The additional screening at airports came as the World Health Organization announced Wednesday that it is not ready to declare an emergency over the outbreak. WHO director general Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus said members would meet again Thursday to continue the discussion and make a decision.

Emergency declarations lead to a boost of public health measures to contain the spread of the illness, as well as funding for the crisis. The WHO has only made five such declarations in the last decade.

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Health screenings of tourists and short-term visitors at travel ports are also rare.

“It’s simply uncommon,” McGeer said. “The circumstances in which you would want to do screening are really limited.”

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But it has been done before.

Amid the SARS outbreak in 2003, airports in South-East Asia used thermal scanners to detect fevers at airports. More recently, McGeer said airport screening was used during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

WHO acknowledges on its website that screening at airports can raise civil rights and privacy concerns, but says that amid outbreaks the public is generally compliant.

Health screening for long-term visitors or incoming residents is more of a common practice in many countries, including Canada.

— With files from The Canadian Press