Health authorities in Alberta are testing people for a coronavirus that has killed more than 20 people and made close to 900 others sick, however, all tests that have come back so far have been negative.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said it is difficult to give a precise number on how many people have been tested because it is constantly changing, but she said there is a low barrier for testing.
“Our local public health physicians are working really hard to make sure whenever there’s any suspicion, people are getting the tests they need,” she said.
Hinshaw said officials are looking at travel history and whether anyone has been in contact with a confirmed case, though she said that has not yet happened.
“The cases we’ve seen have really been cases who have a travel history to Wuhan or that surrounding area and then have illness that’s consistent – cough, fever – which is very common, most likely caused by influenza or another common respiratory virus,” she said.
Hinshaw said labs in the province can test for the coronavirus and it can take up to two days to get a result. As of Friday, no cases had been confirmed in Canada.
She said the virus is in a containment phase right now because all cases that have been identified have been exported and travel-related.
“The fact that those are being identified is actually proof our surveillance system is working and we’re able to identify those quickly and then contain them so there’s not any further spread,” Hinshaw said.
Dr. Lynora Saxsinger, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and an infectious disease specialist, said Alberta’s approach to testing is warranted right now.
“There are a lot of things that are unanswered,” she said.
Saxsinger said the response to the coronavirus so far has been appropriate.
“I think that there is really a potentially severe situation here and if we respond to it well and it seems like it wasn’t a big deal, it means the right thing was done,” she said.
On Friday, health officials in France confirmed two cases – the first to hit Europe – while American officials announced a second case in Chicago.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the individual infected had travelled in recent weeks to Wuhan, the central Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak.
Saxsinger said she was not surprised to hear about a second case in the U.S.
“It’s not a surprise it would occur at a large city, high-volume transportation hub,” she said.
Hundreds of cases of the flu-like illness have been confirmed in China since the outbreak began last month. It has spread rapidly, reaching Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and, more recently, the United States. There are no confirmed cases in Canada as of Jan. 24.
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China’s National Health Commission has locked down at least 10 cities in the province of Hubei, encompassing approximately 33 million people. A number of Lunar New Year events have been cancelled in major cities, as well. Chinese officials have not said how long the shutdowns would last.
Saxsinger speculated the travel bans could make a difference.
“There’s been a lot of travel already before they put that ban in. Given the potential long incubation period, a lot more movement in and out of the borders of the city could have spread infection much more quickly to many more places,” she said.
She also said it is unclear how long this epidemic could last.
“I’m not really sure what’s going to happen. It could end up being one of the silent public health successes where everyone says, ‘That wasn’t such a big deal — why was there all the fuss?’ In which case that meant the response worked, or else it could be quite difficult,” Saxsinger said.
The vast majority of cases and deaths have been in and around Wuhan.
Coronaviruses are part of a large family of viruses with a wide range of severity. They include the common cold, but also more severe illnesses like SARS. So far, health officials do not believe the virus to be as deadly or contagious.
The virus is believed to have emerged from a seafood market in China.
-With files from Canadian Press, The Associated Press, Reuters and Global News