As more countries around the world report cases of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus disease, Canadian officials are suggesting that we need to be prepared in case a pandemic eventually reaches us.
So what are Canada’s plans? They’re still being worked on and will obviously depend a lot on what exactly a COVID-19 outbreak actually ends up looking like in Canada. But we have some clues.
In a briefing to the House of Commons health committee Wednesday evening, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said that Canada’s approach to a viral outbreak comes in three phases: containment, preparation and mitigation.
Right now, he said, we’re still in the containment phase. But we’re starting to move into preparation.
“At the same time that Canada is maintain its containment posture… we’re also starting to prepare for a possible pandemic,” he said.
Federal and provincial health officers already meet regularly to discuss preparations, he said.
One foundation of their plan is the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Preparedness planning guidelines: a set of documents outlining how Canada evaluates risk and the kind of measures that can be taken to address a viral disease.
The goal, outlined in the plan, is: “First, to minimize serious illness and overall deaths, and second to minimize societal disruption among Canadians as a result of an influenza pandemic.”
A second document, the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Public Health Response Plan for Biological Events, is the other part of the pandemic plan, Njoo said. It includes measures like identifying cases, tracking contacts and ensuring rapid access to medical care.
Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada, said Thursday that the plan had been activated and was at level 3 – “escalated,” which triggers response planning.
Other measures that might be considered include public health messaging about things that individuals can do, like washing their hands and staying home when they’re sick.
In a scrum with reporters Wednesday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters that it might not be a bad idea for people to have around a week’s worth of supplies on hand, similar as they might for other emergencies.
“There’s no magic to this,” she said. “It’s really about first of all, making sure that you do have enough supplies if someone in your family becomes ill, if you yourself become ill, that you have what you need to survive for a week or so without going outside, to be prepared in terms of your own personal health.
“Maybe people have certain medications on a prescription basis, to have enough on hand.”
Tam echoed this advice Thursday, saying that people should make sure they have prescription medications on hand.
She also recommended that people make plans for taking care of children and others who might become ill, and seek out supports from the community should they need them someday.
The government has long advocated that people keep an emergency kit with about 72 hours of basic supplies at home, in case of all types of emergencies, even prolonged power outages.
Community-based measures are where things get more serious, and can include cancelling public events.
In a case of widespread transmission, Njoo said, “We would be looking at measures such as what we call ‘social distancing.’
“Do we need to start looking at cancelling mass gatherings or public events? Would there be things such as looking at what we need to do with schools and students attending schools and people sick in the hospitals and so on?
“So that’s all in the future. We’re certainly not there yet. But we are actually taking a close look and making sure we’re prepared for that.”
Tam also said that people and their employers should be having conversations about working remotely. “Communities, schools and workplaces will also have a role to play in preparing for COVID-19,” she said. “Plans should be put in place to manage possible absences and to ensure business continuity, including flexible work arrangements such as teleworking.”
Organizers of community events should make plans based on advice from local health authorities, she said. Ultimately, she said, decisions to cancel events are made at the local level.
Border and travel measures are also listed in the flu pandemic plan, though they’re not recommended highly.
“While aggressive measures (e.g., widespread antiviral use and restriction of movement) to attempt to contain or slow an emerging pandemic in its earliest stages were previously considered possible on the basis of modeling, experience from the 2009 pandemic has resulted in general agreement that such attempts are impractical, if not impossible,” the document reads.
Right now, international travellers are asked to tell border officers if they’re experiencing flu-like symptoms and are asked a question at the customs kiosk about their travel history. Airlines are also required to report if they have someone sick on their flight, so airport staff can prepare, Njoo said.
People coming from Hubei are asked to limit their contact with others by staying home for 14 days. Other travellers are given an information sheet on what to do if they develop symptoms.
People coming from Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Italy, Iran and South Korea, as well as the rest of mainland China, will be asked to monitor their health for 14 days and report to public health authorities if they develop any suspicious symptoms, Njoo said.
Tam said that border efforts were still focused on travellers from Hubei, China, as this is still the epicentre of the outbreak and where the majority of cases are.
“I have asked Canadians to apply a lot of caution as they’re looking at the March Break obviously, because the March Break is coming,” said foreign affairs minister Francois-Philippe Champagne on Thursday.
Travellers should register their travel plans with the Canadian government and contact the government if something happens, he said.
They should also check the latest government travel advice before they leave. Travel advisories for China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Italy, Iran and South Korea were recently updated in response to outbreaks in those countries.