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Coronavirus: What are community cases and should Canadians be concerned?

Coronavirus outbreak: A timeline of how COVID-19 spread around world
WATCH: Coronavirus outbreak: A timeline of how COVID-19 spread around world

As the number of confirmed cases of novel coronavirus increase in Canada, medical authorities are urging Canadians to practise social distancing and prevent the virus from spreading through community transmission. But what are community cases, and why are they cause for concern?

The Canadian government said a community case occurs when the virus has passed within a community, rather than contracted through travel.

Happening across the country

READ MORE: You can catch coronavirus without travelling. Here’s how

Isaac Bogosh, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital community, told Global News, “Community transmission is likely happening across the country” and those numbers are expected to rise as more and more people are tested.

Canada’s epidemiological summary of COVID-19 cases in Canada, which was updated on Friday, showed that out of a study of 434 confirmed cases, 24 per cent of them were contracted in a community setting. Another 10 per cent were linked to having close contact with a recent traveller.

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As of Saturday afternoon, deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo said there were 1,099 confirmed cases in Canada. Thirteen people have died from the virus.

Following the partial closure of the U.S.-Canada border, which was effective at midnight Friday, Bogosh said the country would likely not be “importing” any new cases of COVID-19.

Tips for avoiding community transmission of COVID-19
Tips for avoiding community transmission of COVID-19

Why should you be concerned?

The novel coronavirus is a highly infectious disease, but Bogosh said “you need to be pretty close to someone” to catch it.

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He said newer cases moving forward are most likely going to be “locally acquired.”

A majority of cases are either mild or asymptomatic, but the disease could still react severely. As of Saturday afternoon, the latest numbers from John Hopkins University said over 12,700 people have died so far.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: How COVID-19 is spreading across Canada

Bogosh said the disease can only be transmitted through direct contact and respiratory droplets — either from human-to-human or from coming into contact with an infected surface.

According to the infectious disease specialist, there is growing data to support the claim that individuals with mild symptoms are more likely to transmit this virus in community settings than those with noticeable or severe symptoms.

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Those exhibiting milder symptoms may not even know they have the disease and unintentionally pass it to others — which is what makes social distancing crucial in preventing its spread.

At this point in time, Bogosh said a majority of people should be well aware of the risks and preventative measures.

“We’ve been hearing about what we need to do for weeks now. It’s been over a week. We know exactly what it is to do to avoid getting this infection. We know how to prevent ourselves from getting this infection. We know how to prevent transmission in community settings,” he said.

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“There is no excuse for people not to act in the appropriate manner with the physical distancing measures that we’re supposed to be taking.”

Chief public medical officer Theresa Tam said Wednesday that there is “some degree” of community spread happening within Canada.

“What is most concerning is that over the past week, we’ve started to see a sharp rise in cases and a number of provinces have reported cases with no links to travel,” she said. “Our time to act is now.”

Toronto’s medical officer of health Dr. Eileen De Villa also said Friday she was confident there had been cases of community transmission in addition to travel-related cases in the city.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus: Canada working with commercial airlines to repatriate stranded citizens

Could more testing help prevent community spread?

Aggressive testing models have been proven to help identify clusters of infected individuals early on and prevent the further spread of infection.

South Korea is a good example of this. In South Korea, health officials have tested over 290,000 people and identified over 8,000 infections. Since they began rigorously testing their citizens, the reported number of cases has decreased. On Wednesday, 93 were recorded, down from 909 two weeks earlier.

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After health officials in Halton region confirmed the death of a Milton man last week, who marked the second person in Ontario to die from the virus, was a case of community transmission, calls were reignited for increasing the amount of Canadians tested.

In response to a question about the man’s death, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Saturday the government was ramping up COVID-19 testing more Canadians, having tested over 83,000 already.

“Mass testing is one of the best ways of protecting Canadians and reducing the spread of the virus as well,” Trudeau said. “Tens of thousands are being tested every day.”

— With files from Reuters.