Coronavirus: Did Ottawa wait too long to evacuate Canadians? Health experts say no

Canada’s chief public health officer updates House of Commons on the coronavirus
WATCH: Dr. Teresa Tam updated members of the House of Commons health committee on Wednesday on the new coronavirus outbreak and the threat it poses to Canadians.

Canada is working to evacuate its citizens from China as the death toll from the novel coronavirus has passed 170 and more countries have reported new infections from the virus.

“We have secured an aircraft to bring those Canadians who wish to leave back to Canada,” Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters Wednesday. “The next step obviously is to work on the diplomatic front, and the logistics, obviously, with our Chinese counterparts

Champagne said the government is currently working with officials in China to organize the flight, which could take several days as the Wuhan area is now under “lockdown.” Global Affairs has said 196 Canadians have now asked for help to leave China amid the outbreak

But while Europe, Japan and the United States have already evacuated at least some of their citizens living in China, health experts say Canada’s timing is appropriate.

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Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto, said it would have been a greater health risk to rush this decision.

“The riskier thing would be to pull the trigger too quickly when we are not ready to receive people,” she said. “It sounds like a simple process but it’s actually quite complicated.”

Toronto father trying to bring home toddler from Wuhan
Toronto father trying to bring home toddler from Wuhan

Hota said there will have to be a detailed screening process to ensure that people who are symptomatic don’t get on the flight.

“Even having the right type of plane to do this — it’s a long flight, and they would need to be under medical surveillance,” she said.

Colin Furness, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said evacuating people is more of a political decision than one based on sound public health policy.

“No government wants to be accused of not doing something to protect its citizens,” he said.

“If I were a Canadian in Wuhan, I would be cautious because, by definition, it’s safer to stay home and practice social isolation than get on a plane.”

Steven Hoffman, a global health professor at York University, said Canada’s decision came shortly after other countries began exploring this option.

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“The mass quarantine in Wuhan is inconceivable in the Canadian context,” he said. “The government being able to alleviate that for the most vulnerable Canadians there is a good decision.”

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The United States and Japan flew some of their citizens out of the province at the epicentre of the outbreak on Wednesday as the World Health Organization said there was “deeply concerning” evidence of person-to-person transmission in other countries.

The European Union sent a passenger plane Thursday to pick up hundreds of Europeans who want to leave China.

“It may look like we are late to the game, but that’s on a political rather than a public health basis,” Furness said.

What happens when Canadians arrive home?

Coronavirus outbreak: How easy is it to catch coronavirus on a plane?
Coronavirus outbreak: How easy is it to catch coronavirus on a plane?

Canadian officials have not clearly outlined how they will manage passengers once they arrive home.

The U.K., which evacuated some of its citizens from the Wuhan area, has told passengers to quarantine themselves for 14 days and watch for signs of illness.

Coronavirus outbreak: Hajdu says they’re working on protocols for return of Canadians from China
Coronavirus outbreak: Hajdu says they’re working on protocols for return of Canadians from China

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said Chinese authorities have a screening process to ensure that no one who may be infected with the virus boards the flight.

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“No cases, and no sick people, will be leaving that city,” Tam told the House of Commons health committee on Wednesday. “The protocols and the processes will be put in place to ensure we don’t impact the Canadian public.”

READ MORE: How quarantines work in Canada

As the coronavirus has an incubation period of one to 14 days, Tam said there will be measures on the flight and on the ground to potentially isolate individuals.

“Should anything even happen on the flight, there are measures to separate anyone who suddenly develops symptoms,” she said.

However, health experts say once those passengers from China arrive on Canadian soil, they should be put into a temporary quarantine.

“From a strictly public health standpoint, we don’t know how contagious you are before you’re symptomatic,” Furness said. “If we let them self-report, let’s assume they are all honest, but they won’t know if they are contagious.”

READ MORE: Risk of influenza is greater than risk of coronavirus, says Alberta’s chief medical officer of health

Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu did not specify whether Canadians might be quarantined when they arrive home.

“Part of the process now is figuring out exactly what our protocols will be when we return Canadians that wish to come home,” Hajdu said.

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“We’re working very closely with our U.S. counterparts, who obviously have some experience in this and have set up some best practices, and we’ll be following their lead very closely.”

The U.S. Department of Defence evacuated roughly 200 of its citizens from Wuhan to the March Air Reserve Base in southern California on Wednesday, where they are undergoing three days of testing and monitoring, according to officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.