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Coronavirus and health-care workers: What are the risks and how are they mitigated?

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While the coronavirus outbreak has shone a spotlight on the risks health-care workers face, a Canadian expert says there is confidence about the effectiveness of infection control practices here at home.

Dr. Susy Hota, an infectious disease specialist who teaches at the University of Toronto medical school, said longstanding policies are in place to protect those working in the health-care sector from becoming ill.

They receive education that includes how to put on and remove personal protective equipment, for example.

“That’s the key thing for making sure you don’t contaminate yourself,” she said.

READ MORE: Chinese doctor who sounded alarm on new coronavirus has died: reports

When a patient enters an emergency department, they are automatically asked questions about whether they have a fever, cough as well as their travel history as part of the triage process, Hota said.

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“We’ve always actually asked a travel question with it, but it’s, of course, become more important than ever,”¬†she said.

If a patient says yes, they get sent to a room where health-care providers must wear eye protection, a procedure mask as well as gown and gloves in order to prevent transmission of any bugs through droplets of bodily fluids.

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Timeline of Canadian evacuation flights from China

The personal protective gear provides protection from illnesses such as the flu, which kills an estimated 3,500 Canadians every year.

“It’s important to make sure you identify people right away and have the right protection in place for health-care workers so they don’t get sick when caring for patients who have infections,” she said.

READ MORE: Canadian families to reunite after 2 evacuation flights arrive from Wuhan

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On Friday, it was revealed that an eye doctor in China died from the novel coronavirus, the first known case of a medical professional to succumb to the new illness.

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Li Wenliang, 34, died after being infected at the hospital where he worked in Wuhan, according to multiple media reports.

Li was hailed as a whistleblower because he had spoken out on social media about attention he’d received from police for “spreading rumours” about the new virus.

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Expressing gratitude to our health care workers

The outbreak, which has now claimed more than 800 lives in China and has spread to roughly two dozen countries, is believed to have started in Wuhan. There are seven confirmed or presumptive cases of the virus in Canada.

Hota couldn’t comment specifically on infection protection protocols in other countries but said that in order for the practices to be fully effective, they need to be “rote” for health-care workers.

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Coronavirus outbreak: World Health Organization says they’ve seen stability in Hubei over past 4 days

If not, during times of fatigue or stress, there’s a potential for protocol to fall by the wayside.

“Sometimes people forget a little bit about making sure that they look out for themselves. So these are human things. They’re human responses,” she said. “And that’s why you need to have checks and balances.”

During periods of routine use in the Canadian system, “most health-care professionals are comfortable with it (personal protective equipment) because they feel adequately trained and they know what the protocols are,” she said.

Dr. Bharat Pankhania, a University of Exeter infectious disease expert, told the Associated Press that doctors working at the early stages of any new outbreak are particularly vulnerable.

READ MORE: Coronavirus by the numbers: cases still rising worldwide

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“At the beginning, doctors are just not aware of what kind of behaviours may be dangerous,” he said. When Li was exposed to the new virus, “he didn’t know an outbreak was already underway and what precautions he should take,” Pankhania said.

In Hong Kong, health-care workers have sounded the alarm of the possibility of being infected by the virus.

Thousands went on strike after chief executive Carrie Lam stopped short of fully closing the border with the Chinese mainland. A two-week quarantine is in place for anyone looking to enter the city from China.

READ MORE: Looking back: Toronto’s 2003 SARS outbreak

Canadian health officials have stressed that the potential for an outbreak is low but have asked people to take standard precautions such as hand-washing.

They’ve also said lessons have been learned from the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that claimed 44 lives in Canada, including that of three health-care workers.

In addition to those who lost their lives, more than 100 health-care workers were infected with SARS.

The president of Public Health Ontario — an agency that did not yet exist during the 2003 outbreak — said advances have been made in communicable disease control expertise as well as lab testing since those days.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Doctor explains how science has advanced since SARS scare in 2003

Dr. Peter Donnelly pointed out at a press conference late last month that there was already a test for the new strain of the coronavirus that is “specific” and “reliable.”

“When you think about that, that’s quite remarkable, because this was a disease unknown to science only two weeks ago, and we now have the full genetic fingerprint of the virus,” he told reporters.

–With files from the Associated Press and Reuters