Editor’s Note: This story was published before the World Health Organization declared novel coronavirus a pandemic and Canada’s chief health officer labelled the virus a “serious public health threat.” For the latest coronavirus news, click here.
As of March 16, there are more than 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with most occurring in Ontario and B.C.
Health officials are continuing to grapple with the new cases and are preparing for the possibility of an outbreak similar to the levels seen in South Korea, Italy and China where thousands of people have been infected. It’s important to know whom to call if you have any symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
COVID-19 is a lung virus that’s part of a family of coronaviruses that vary in severity, including everything from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) to the common cold.
Symptoms associated with COVID-19 include a runny nose, headache, cough and fever that are similar to flu symptoms, according to a previous Global News report. It’s flu season in Canada, meaning viruses impacting the population are common.
But a milder form of COVID-19 could be “somewhat indistinguishable” from the flu, Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News in a previous report.
Other symptoms to watch for include shortness of breath, chills and body aches. In more serious forms of COVID-19, the virus can cause bronchitis, kidney failure, and death, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Who do I call if I’m presenting symptoms?
Health Canada explains on its website that if you start having COVID-19 symptoms, it’s important to isolate yourself from others as quickly as possible. It then recommends you call either a health care professional or the public health authority in the province or territory where you live. Describe what your symptoms are and your travel history and the authority will provide advice on what to do.
“You can call your local public health department. There are many sources to call. You may want to call your health care provider, but call first, don’t go to the waiting room, especially if you’ve got symptoms,” said Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, in a press conference on Thursday.
In Ontario, he recommends calling Telehealth Ontario, for free confidential information on what to do next.
Should I call my doctor or a walk-in clinic?
Always call a family doctor or walk-in-clinic office first before you go in, to get advice on whether you fit the profile of someone who is more likely to catch COVID-19, Williams explained. “They may want to encourage you instead of contaminating the waiting room … to go to a centre and get assessed,” he said.
Many clinics and physicians offices recommend anyone with serious, flu-like symptoms call a public health hotline rather than head straight to a clinic, said Tom Koch, an adjunct professor of geography at the University of British Columbia.
“In a clinic, or the office, there is no way to distinguish between a robust cold, influenza or COVID-19. That requires further lab testing most are not equipped to provide,” he said.
“If someone is infected and symptomatic at an early phase, there is a chance they’ll infect others in the office or clinic. Public Health is better set up to take over these cases with testing, and usually, a request for self-quarantine.”
A clinic or physician’s office will usually ask a patient questions over the phone, like the person’s degree of respiratory distress, and then make recommendations based on that, Koch said. Severe cases where patients are having difficulty breathing will be referred to a hospital set-up for COVID-19 cases, he said.
“In the interim, people shouldn’t panic. We’re doing all that is possible,” he said. “The real point is to pay attention to both public health advice and news reports as the virus matures.”
The Integra Health Centre in Toronto, which includes a network of clinics that offer same-day appointments including walk-ins, has been screening patients over the phone and using a questionnaire to determine whether it should see them in person, said Dr. Anjori Pasricha, a family doctor with Integra.
“If they screen positive on this questionnaire, they’re actually advised to not come into the office with the intent of not exposing individuals in the waiting area, and also to prevent spread to, depending on how they’re travelling to and from the clinic, whether they’re taking [public transit],” she said.
The questions they’ve been asking, including whether they have a new onset cough, trouble breathing, or a fever. If a patient answers yes to those questions, they will ask if they’ve been travelling anywhere in the last 14 days, and to which countries, Pasricha said.
“If they have travelled to any of the countries that are now considered to be high risk, per our public health unit, then they are actually advised to self-quarantine and call the Telehealth Ontario helpline or their public health unit,” she said. The clinics have also been asking if a patient has been near anyone who has a respiratory illness or has been to a country impacted by COVID-19.
Speaking to colleagues at other clinics, most have been approaching COVID-19 in a similar way to Integra, she said. They are using standards determined by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. Toronto Public Health has some directives for health care professionals in this scenario, but there hasn’t been direct communication with public health bodies, she said.
“You’re not considered to be high-risk, or at risk, if you only have respiratory symptoms with no travel history, or exposure to anyone in terms of close contact who has travelled to any of the high-risk countries,” she said.
Public Health authority hotlines to call per province or territory:
New Brunswick: 811
Nova Scotia: 811
Newfoundland and Labrador: 811 or 1-888-709-2929
Northwest Territories: 811
— With files from Rachael D’Amore.