Kingston health officials are preparing for a possible outbreak of the novel coronavirus locally, in part by working to open a lab that will test for virus in a matter of hours.
“We’ll be able to test patients here and maybe help to deal with testing that’s done in the community,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, an infection disease specialist with Queen’s University and Kingston Health Sciences Centre at a lab based out of Kingston General Hospital. “We’ll be able to do that and turn around the results very, very quickly for physicians and for patients so they’ll know if they’re positive or not.”
That lab is currently being prepared as part of Ontario’s public health strategy to test for COVID-19 locally, if any cases arise.
At this time, there have been no positive cases of COVID-19 in Kingston or the surrounding region, but on Wednesday, the World Health Organization announced the outbreak had reached the status of a pandemic.
Four Royal Military College cadets were put into isolation at Canadian Forces Base Kingston in late February after it was determined one of the cadets had flown on a plane with a woman who tested positive.
It was quickly determined the possibly affected cadet did not test positive for the virus. The three other cadets were released immediately, while the potentially exposed cadet was held in isolation for the standard two week incubation period.
One passenger from the Grand Princess cruise ship, which saw a major outbreak, who was repatriated to CFB Trenton in Quinte West on Monday tested positive for the virus after landing, but Canadian public health officials say the person’s symptoms are mild.
Ottawa Public Health also announced the city’s first case of the virus — the patient is a man in his 40s who is also exhibiting mild symptoms.
Although Kingston and the surrounding region has yet to see any cases, the Kingston lab will be able to test for the virus very quickly.
“When everything is up and running, we’re probably looking at a turnaround time of about four hours for a test. But we can batch tests together, so we’ll do multiple tests and have all of those results … within about four, to five hours.”
Evans said the death rate of the virus is 10 times higher than that of the flu’s, but numbers are still incomplete for the new virus. Evans says, for the most part, the new coronavirus is not something the majority of the population should be afraid of.
“For the vast majority of the population, certainly a younger population under the age of 60, this is a mild illness. It does not seem to have very bad outcomes.”
Nevertheless, agencies in Kingston have taken action to cancel certain gatherings in the city.
Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington Public Health have cancelled several classes, including nutrition and pre-natal classes.
Queen’s University’s Health and Sciences department has cancelled all international travel and in-person academic conferences. Post-secondary institutions across the regions have discouraged their staff and students from international travel.
Local school boards have also announced they would be cancelling international trips planned for students.
Evans says it’s measures like these that might help Canadians fend off surges in the virus other countries, like Italy and Iran, have seen in the last few weeks.
“I’d have to underscore that here in Canada, we’ve done an amazing job in really getting ourselves prepared, looking for it and getting everything in place to make sure that that peak doesn’t happen.”
Nevertheless, in the case of a surge locally, Evans says health officials have been working on contingency measures to make room for those needing hospital care.
“We’ve got plans in place to look at trying to provide care for some people who are already in hospital in other places, so as to free up that capacity here.”
The real concern, Evan stressed, is the spread of the virus to those who are over 60 and those who may have compromised immune systems. It will be with these portions of the community that public health will be working to protect.
“Part of our strategy is going to be telling older individuals, people with other significant illnesses as much as possible to stay at home.”