There are still no cases of the novel coronavirus in Ottawa, but as more and more travellers return from affected countries, it’s “just a matter of time” before the city sees its first travel-related case of the virus, Ottawa’s chief medical officer says.
That said, things remain “business as usual” for Ottawa Public Health (OPH) and the City of Ottawa. The local health agency hasn’t changed any of its COVID-19 preparations and there’s been no shift in city services, Dr. Vera Etches said at a press conference on Monday, alongside the mayor and the chair of the health board.
“We’re continuing to test for the virus when people come back from travels and they have respiratory illness,” Etches told reporters at Ottawa City Hall.
Etches’ comments came on the heels of three new reported cases of the novel coronavirus in Ontario, bringing the province’s total number of cases to 18.
A spate of new cases was reported over the weekend, each of them people who had recently travelled to Iran or Egypt or family members of those who had visited the countries.
Between one and five travellers returning to Ottawa each day require a conversation about whether they require testing for the novel coronavirus, according to the city’s top doctor.
Some days, no tests are ordered while other days, a few are requested, Etches said.
Asked whether coronavirus in Ottawa is an inevitability, the medical officer of health suggested it is and the public health agency is moving to ensure it’s well-positioned to address a spread of the virus.
“I would say it certainly is probably just a matter of time until we get a case in Ottawa related to travel,” she said, noting there’s a difference between “travel-imported” cases of the virus and transmission within the local community.
“What we’re hoping all the measures around the world are doing is limiting transmission once it gets into a country. … We know, though, it’s challenging. This is a virus that can be transmitted and people have very mild symptoms. People may not know to present and so it is quite possible that those containment measures will not work in the long run.
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“That’s what we’re making sure we’re prepared to handle.”
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There are steps Ottawans can take now to be prepared for cases of COVID-19 in the city — and Etches likened them to normal emergency precautions that officials encourage people to take ahead of the flu season or before a winter storm.
“Somebody with an infection with the new virus could be ill for a week or more. So do you have the fever medication? Do you have the supplies you would need to just limit you having to go out to the grocery store or the pharmacy?” she said.
“These are just practical kind of measures that you can put in place.”
Earlier Monday morning, OPH tweeted other examples of “practical” preparations people can make.
They include refilling medical prescriptions in a timely manner and some arguably common-sense health tips, like washing your hands, coughing and sneezing into your arm and staying home if you’re sick.
Etches, however, discouraged healthy people from buying and wearing masks. She said “it’s not a useful practice” because the average person doesn’t get their mask fitted as health care providers do with their respirators.
Asked whether people should consider limiting or cancelling large social, cultural or sporting events in Ottawa, Etches stressed that comings and goings in the city “should be business as usual.”
“People need to be able to have support of their social communities when they’re stressed. There is no virus that we’ve detected circulating in our community that would suggest we need to take away those supports and the good things that social gatherings give us,” she said.
“If there’s a need to change that, that will be a conversation with the federal government, the provincial government, and something we’ll look at locally based on the risk of the infection and the benefits of maintaining a societal functioning.”
There’s also no need, at the moment, to upturn any travel plans to Ottawa this spring or summer, Etches said.
OPH has a page on its website dedicated to information and updates on the novel coronavirus, including the status of confirmed and presumptive positive cases in Ottawa — which remained at a zero on Monday.
That current status “doesn’t mean that we should let our guard down,” Mayor Jim Watson said during his opening remarks on Monday.
“We still continue to prepare for the potential of a case or more. OPH follows the lead of the Ontario Ministry of Health, Public Health Ontario and the Public Health Agency of Canada in responding to the coronavirus with a focus on keeping people of Ottawa well.”
According to Etches, there have been more than 50 “situations” in Ottawa to date where someone’s health status was investigated and OPH followed up on test results.
At this point, only hospital emergency rooms are taking swabs and sending off tests for the virus and they have the capacity to handle the current volume of tests, Etches said.
If requests for those tests increase, public health officials would look at increasing the number of facilities administering the tests, she added.
On a more positive note, Etches stated that a “reassuring aspect” of the novel coronavirus is that the “vast majority” of people infected will be able to get through the illness without needing hospital care.
–With a file from The Canadian Press