Canada could move to more active surveillance of COVID-19. Here’s what that means.

French lab scientists in hazmat gear inserting liquid in test tube manipulate potentially infected patient samples at Pasteur Institute in Paris, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. Scientists at the Pasteur Institute developed and shared a quick test for the new virus that is spreading worldwide, and are using genetic information about the coronavirus to develop a potential vaccine and treatments. AP Photo/Francois Mori

With cases of COVID-19 appearing in an ever-growing list of countries, health officials are considering stepping up Canada’s surveillance of the novel coronavirus disease.

“We’re talking with experts on how we might expand our surveillance, how we might expand our testing. We’re doing that right now,” said Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health at a press conference Thursday.

READ MORE: Coronavirus spread risk is now ‘very high’ — what does that mean for Canadians?

Right now, he said, doctors generally decide whether to get a patient tested on the basis of their symptoms, as well as their travel history.

However, if they believe it’s warranted, Ontario doctors have the discretion to get a test even if someone hasn’t visited an affected country.

Story continues below advertisement

But with nearly 60 countries reporting cases, and outbreaks in Iran, South Korea, Italy and China, the methods might change, he said.

“The fact is that we are identifying more and more travel, more and more issues.”

“So that’s our concern: are we moving into a new phase? Do we have to be attentive? Can we do a wider surveillance to say, maybe there are some out there, how are we going to know that?” Williams said.

“Let’s do a wider check and see.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: WHO official says outbreak not at stage to declare pandemic' COVID-19: WHO official says outbreak not at stage to declare pandemic
COVID-19: WHO official says outbreak not at stage to declare pandemic – Feb 28, 2020

The federal government is looking into this, too.

READ MORE: Canadian coronavirus cases linked to Iran rise, experts question country’s response

Story continues below advertisement

“We are actively having conversations right now with provinces and territories on some of the next steps,” said Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, on Thursday.

Plans haven’t been finalized yet, Williams said, but Ontario is consulting with experts. Currently, the provincial lab can handle about 1,000 tests per day, but they’re looking at increasing that number.

[ Sign up for our Health IQ newsletter for the latest coronavirus updates ]

So far, about 700 tests have been performed, he said.

Having more active surveillance might be a good idea, according to Amy Greer, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Guelph. Partly, it’s about data collection.

“The goal is to identify people who have those symptoms, who do not seek medical attention for various reasons,” she said. “If we were to start to have community transmission, you’re going to have people who have more mild illness who are not going to get captured in the health care system.”

READ MORE: Public health agency warns stronger COVID-19 protections could drain supplies

Canada already has a national surveillance system for flu, which uses reports from “sentinel” doctors and patients to estimate the prevalence of flu in Canada and spot outbreaks in different populations and locations. Something similar could be used for COVID-19, Greer said.

Story continues below advertisement

“The key reasons for doing these sorts of studies, it’s really to determine to get a better sense of the true population at risk.”

That information can then be used to guide decisions, she said — like, for example, whether schools should be closed if the data shows that kids seem to transmit the virus fairly easily.

Williams said that while the province is ramping up testing and surveillance programs, he doesn’t think that everyone with flu-like symptoms should be tested, as there are many different illnesses that could be the cause.

READ MORE: Hunting a virus — How doctors trace an outbreak

And while he said health authorities remain vigilant, there is no cause for fear in the general public.

The data from China shows that most of the spread has been to close contacts, most infected people have fairly mild and short-lived symptoms — particularly younger people — and the deaths have been in older people with underlying health conditions, he said.

“Before there’s widespread panic and that kind of stuff, look at the evidence,” Williams said, noting the mortality rate is less than that of the flu.

“I think you have to — instead of [acting] on speculation and fear — go back to the data, look at the information [and] ask your authorities on what the risk is. It’s still low,” Williams said.
Story continues below advertisement

“But does that mean we’re going to sit back and not do more surveillance? We’re going to do more surveillance.”

— with files from the Canadian Press

Sponsored content