Japan confirms 12 Canadians on cruise ship infected with novel coronavirus

By Laura Osman

THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA _ Japanese authorities might soon allow people quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship near Tokyo, where 12 Canadians have contracted the novel coronavirus, to disembark and finish out their isolation on land.

The 3,500 passengers on the ship have been under quarantine since last week, and so far 218 have tested positive for the disease, which the World Health Organization has dubbed COVID-19.

It’s the biggest concentration of confirmed cases outside of mainland China, according to the World Health Organization

The 12 Canadians who contracted the virus on board the ship have been moved to Japanese health facilities, and at least three require hospitalization, Champagne said.

Champagne said emergency response teams and consular officials are in Japan to make sure Canadians are receiving the help they need.

“We know that there are some people who need medications on board, they want to have contact with their families, we’re facilitating that,” Champagne said at a briefing in Senegal, where he is on a diplomatic trip.

Canada has also dispatched health officials to Japan to co-ordinate with local public health authorities.

Japan plans to move passengers who wish to leave the ship in phases, with the most “medically vulnerable” guests being moved in the first phase, according to Princess Cruises, the line that owns the Diamond Princess.

That first group of people will be tested for the virus, and if they test negative will be taken to a quarantine housing facility, the cruise line said in a press release.

If they test positive they’ll be moved to a health facility.

The shore-side quarantine centre will include individual rooms with private bathrooms, and while passengers will continue to receive their medical prescriptions they will not have access to specialized or western meals. They will be served Japanese bento boxes for the duration of the quarantine, according to the release.

Everyone who wishes to stay on the ship will be allowed to do so.

Champagne said about 250 Canadians on a separate cruise ship off the shore of Cambodia, the Westerdam, have tested negative for the coronavirus and will be returned to Canada at the expense of the cruise line, Holland America.

As for Canadians still in the centre of the viral outbreak, Champagne said all the 400 or so Canadians who wished to leave Hubei, the Chinese province that includes the city of Wuhan, have been repatriated and are quarantined in southern Ontario, at Canadian Forces Base Trenton.

There are still permanent Canadian residents in Hubei, he said. Though Chinese authorities initially stipulated that only Canadian passport holders would be able to leave the quarantined region, they seem to have relaxed that rule, Champagne said, but he did not elaborate on whether Canada would make arrangements to fly more of them out.

The last flight chartered by the Canadian government to evacuate people from the city of Wuhan, which landed at CFB Trenton on Tuesday, was the last the government plans to send to the region. Those Canadians who chose to stay behind in Hubei have been provided with consular services, Champagne said.

A look at how workplaces can prepare for possible coronavirus outbreak

By Cassandra Szklarski

THE CANADIAN PRESS

TORONTO _ Companies wary of what an infectious outbreak could do to their workforce and bottom line are revisiting contingency plans as the new coronavirus continues to spread.

Marie-Helene Primeau of the Montreal-based risk management company Premier Continuum says she’s spent recent days fielding questions from several firms seeking guidance on what to do if the rapidly spreading illness that originated in China threatens the health of employees and customers.

“Everyone’s looking at their state of readiness,” says Primeau, whose company provides training and advice to a range of firms including banks, insurance companies, government agencies and those in manufacturing.

“They’re actively revisiting the plans, but they’re not necessarily stockpiling masks.”

Health officials in Canada have repeatedly stressed that the risk to public health remains low. Seven cases have been identified in Canada, while worldwide, the illness known as 2019-nCoV has sickened more than 37,000 people and killed more than 800, nearly all in China.

Nevertheless, Canadians are being urged to remain vigilant against infection, with medical experts reminding the public we’re still in the throes of flu season and that good hygiene is advised wash hands frequently, cough and sneeze into tissue or your upper sleeve, and don’t touch your face.

Disaster management expert Amin Mawani says workers and managers alike should take this time to combat misinformation, repeat hygiene tips, be clear on sick leave policies and prepare for the possibility of mass absenteeism.

If an outbreak hits, employers should encourage unwell workers to stay home, Mawani says, but a key step to mitigating an outbreak’s impact is to keep people from getting sick in the first place.

“You can’t buy traditional insurance in a sense, but you can prepare for it by spending some money planning for it and stockpiling certain things _ masks and whatever else you might need,” says Mawani, academic director of the health industry management program at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto.

A possible outbreak has critics refocused on provincial sick day allowances in Ontario, where the Progressive Conservative government offers most workers three days of unpaid leave each year and allows bosses to demand a doctor’s note.

Health-care workers say that can make it hard for some to stay home when necessary, and if sick people work in high-risk settings _ such as food services, long-term care facilities or childcare spaces _ the impact can be significant.

“A lack of paid sick days results in children and adults transmitting infections at school and work, exacerbating contagion throughout the province,” the group Decent Work and Health Network warn in an open letter to Premier Doug Ford.

Mawani agreed employers should consider whether they’re prepared to ease sick day restrictions if the virus strikes staff, noting hardline policies also threaten morale and loyalty.

Workers should also consider coming up with their own protective measures, he adds.

“In some ways employees can take the initiative, they can say: ‘Look, I can easily do this at home,’ or ‘I can do this on the weekend. Why do I need to come in tomorrow?”’ he says.

“And employers should be willing to listen during this phase so even if (workers) don’t start working from home now (the company) can have plans ready.”

John Yamniuk of the Toronto-based consulting firm DRI Canada says there are ways to limit person-to-person infection at the office, even those with open layouts, communal spaces, and shoulder-to-shoulder computer stations: Is there room to leave a vacant spot between workers? Is there an unused meeting room that can be transformed into an alternate work space?

“If you’re in a call centre environment, (think about) providing extra cleaning services, providing individual headsets for folks so they’re not sharing keyboards or things like that,” adds Yamniuk, based in Calgary.

Primeau’s advice includes making sure contact information for staff and partners are up-to-date.

She also encourages managers to run through “a tabletop exercise” _ in which each person discusses their role during an emergency and all agree on how best to respond to various scenarios.

And don’t assume you can just rely on a temp agency if a lot of people call in sick, she adds, because you can’t guarantee availability or loyalty.

“Temporary backup was something that was brought up when we were talking about the (H1N1) pandemic 10 years ago but the thing is that those individuals will also be sick as well,” she says.

“It’s more (about) focusing on what’s key. What’s urgent to perform? What are the critical activities, rather than calling upon a temp.”

Canada’s chief public health officer says no vaccine for coronavirus for a year

OTTAWA _ Canada’s chief public health officer says it will likely take at least a year before a vaccine is developed to protect people against the new coronavirus that is spreading around the globe.

In the meantime, Dr. Theresa Tam says government and public health authorities should plan on having to manage the outbreak for some time to come.

More than 7,700 people in China have been diagnosed with the new coronavirus and 170 of them have died.

Ontario public health officials reported Wednesday that a presumptive case of the new deadly strain of coronavirus reported earlier this week has been confirmed by the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, bringing the number of confirmed cases in that province to two.

There is also one presumed case in British Columbia. All three of these Canadian cases are linked to recent travel in China.

Tam, who updated members of the House of Commons health committee on the outbreak, said the risk of catching the virus in Canada remains low.

And she said Canada and the world are much better prepared to deal with a potential pandemic than they were during the outbreak of SARS, another coronavirus that killed more than 700 people worldwide from 2002-04.

Among other things, she said international health regulations have been strengthened and Canada now has a public health agency that didn’t exist during the SARS outbreak, as well as improved laboratory and diagnostic capacity and better co-ordination among federal, provincial and territorial health authorities.

The speed with which the three cases in Canada have been identified, diagnosed and managed “is a testament to how the system has improved over time,” Tam told the committee.

That system will be tested as the virus spreads.

For now, the only treatment available for those who catch the virus is  “supportive care,” Tam said. But she said countries around the world are collaborating to see if any existing anti-viral remedies are useful in this case.

A number of vaccines have previously been developed for other coronaviruses and she said countries around the globe are pulling together to see if they can accelerate development of a new vaccine that would protect against this particular strain.

“But what I can say is that even with the most rapid acceleration, I don’t believe we are going to see a vaccine that is ready probably for a year,” Tam said.  “So at least we have to plan for the fact that we’re going to be managing this particular virus with no specific vaccine.”

Tina Namiesniowski, president of the Public Health Agency of Canada, told the committee it is to be expected that there will be travel-related cases in Canada and that the number of confirmed cases will rise.

At the three airports that receive direct fights from China Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal information screens in the customs areas have been set up, advising people to self-report to customs officials if they are experiencing any symptoms of the novel coronavirus. At electronic kiosks, a question has been added, requiring travellers to specify if they’ve been in the Chinese province at the heart of the outbreak.

By the end of the week, Namiesniowski said more public health officials will be in customs areas at the three airports to help border officials.

The federal government, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that it has chartered a plane to evacuate 160 Canadians who’ve been trapped in China due to strict quarantine measures imposed by the Chinese government in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.

Details are still being worked out about how and when the evacuation will take place and whether those returned to Canada will have to be quarantined once they arrive.

Not everyone who wants to come back to Canada may be able to leave, Tam warned.

“The Chinese authority will not let anyone who might be infected on the plane,” she told the committee.

Some airlines have halted all flights to China as a result of the outbreak, including British Airways and several Asian carriers, while Air Canada is only cancelling select flights to China.

The Canadian government is advising against all travel to China.

Canada preparing plane to fly Canadians from Wuhan, once China gives OK

By Mike Blanchfield and Hina Alam

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada has a plane being prepared to fly Canadians out of the province in China at the centre of an outbreak of a new coronavirus, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Wednesday.

The government is also advising all Canadians to avoid  “non-essential” travel to China and has also scaled back its diplomatic presence in the country because of the outbreak.

The next step in the evacuation process is to secure co-operation from China to assist the 160 Canadians who have requested some form of help, Champagne said. Not all of them want to leave, he emphasized in an appearance on Parliament Hill.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, later warned that not everyone who wants to come back to Canada may be able to leave.

“The Chinese authority will not let anyone who might be infected on the plane,” she told the House of Commons health committee.

China has all but sealed off one of its central provinces where the novel coronavirus was first detected. The virus causes respiratory symptoms similar to the common cold, but it can be deadly in very severe cases.

At Champagne’s side, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government still has to decide what will happen with the Canadians who leave China, so as to prevent any spread of the illness.

Asked whether returning travellers would be held in quarantine, Hajdu replied:  “We will always work to ensure the health of Canadians, whether they’re abroad or whether they’re here. So, yes what we’re looking at is a scenario where we have all the measures in place to protect Canadians from exposure to the virus. Having said that, that’s about as far as I can go.”

Officials say the 201 Americans taken to the United States from the Chinese city at the centre of the virus outbreak are undergoing three days of monitoring at a southern California military base to make sure they do not show signs of the virus.

Hajdu said the U.S. has a process that is working  “efficiently.”

Champagne said Canada is working with allies to co-ordinate plans and make the logistics work, and that could take more time.

Some other countries have promised similar help for their citizens stuck in the province of Hubei particularly those that have diplomatic offices there, which Canada does not and Champagne said Canada isn’t far behind them.

“The only plane which has landed is a U.S. plane that was scheduled to be there,” Champagne said, which was then followed by a plane sent by Japan earlier Wednesday.

He said Canada was at the  “forefront” of the international response.

The virus has killed 170 people and infected more than 7,700 on the Chinese mainland and abroad.

A Twitter message by the Canadian Embassy in China said that as of Wednesday its diplomatic missions are working with reduced staff due to the coronavirus. It urged Canadians in need of emergency consular assistance to call or email the emergency response centre of Global Affairs Canada in Ottawa.

It also posted the contact phone number of 1-613-996-8885 and the email address of sos?international.gc.ca.

A teacher who is living with his pregnant Canadian wife and child in a city that is the epicentre of China‘s coronavirus outbreak had been hoping to leave the country on a British flight.

Tom Williams is hoping to get his wife, Lauren, who is about 35 weeks pregnant, out of Wuhan, the Hubei city that has been essentially locked down with the emergence of the disease. The couple also has a two-and-a-half-year-old son, James, who is Canadian.

Williams is a British expat and his wife and son are from British Columbia.

“We’re just currently waiting to hear confirmation whether we’ve got space on the British flight,” Williams told The Canadian Press in a FaceTime interview from China on Wednesday, before Champagne’s announcement.

The family received a call from officials in Ottawa earlier this week, who asked permission to share his wife’s file with the British Embassy, he said.

“We have some stuff laid out in case it’s a last-minute departure.”

At least 250 Canadians have registered with Global Affairs Canada to say they are in Wuhan, said Champagne, who added that officials are trying to contact everyone to assess their needs.

Williams said looking at options isn’t really helping people on the ground, although he understands that Canada doesn’t have a diplomatic presence in Wuhan, a city of 11 million. Canadian offices in Beijing and Shanghai are closed until Sunday for the Lunar New Year holiday.

“We’re just a little anxious and hoping for some answers pretty soon,” said Williams, who added that he and his family are  “still healthy and still OK.”

The family went out during the day Wednesday and the streets were “very quiet,” he said. They take their temperatures whenever they enter and leave their apartment complex.

James was watching “Toy Story” Wednesday afternoon.

“He’s a little bit clingy, but we’re doing our best with train sets and different things. Trying to keep him entertained.”

Canadian Wayne Duplessis, who teaches in China, said he and his family registered with the emergency response centre in Ottawa to know what help may be available in Wuhan.

But Duplessis, who is originally from Espanola, Ont., said he is not looking to leave.

Most people he knows are taking the situation in stride, although he said there is  “a certain resignation” and  “despair.” Duplessis and his family members take their temperatures every morning at breakfast.

More restrictions have been placed on cars and some people are worried those might affect day-to-day activities such as getting groceries, he said.

From his 28th-floor balcony, Duplessis said he could see the highway, usually buzzing with activity, was empty.

“The IKEA mall across the street is empty, which is too bad. There’s great lunches there,” he said.

“An IKEA meatball lunch would be nice right now.”

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How Canadian researchers are using data to track the spread of the coronavirus

TORONTO _ Canadian researchers are making advances in tracking the trajectory of viral illnesses, like the emergent coronavirus, as they try to stay ahead of any potential threat to Canada.

From global flight patterns to learning the names of individual patients, scientists say they have more ways to monitor infectious diseases than ever.

These insights are drawn from new data-driven technologies, improved communication across public- health agencies and increased transparency in reporting infections.

But as our interconnected world has made it easier to share information, it has also multiplied the opportunities for viruses to spread, said Kamran Khan, a Toronto doctor who specializes in infectious disease.

“On one hand, the world is rapidly changing, where diseases are emerging and spreading faster,” said Khan, a scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital.

“On the other hand, we happen to have growing access to data we can use … to generate insights and spread them faster than the diseases spread themselves.”

The newly identified coronavirus has so far sickened close to 600 people in China and killed at least 17. Other cases have been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Thursday that several people in Canada are under observation for signs they may have contracted the pneumonia-like illness, but that the risk to Canadians remains low.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization determined Thursday that it was “too early” to declare the outbreak a global health emergency, but cautioned that “it may yet become one.”

Khan, the founder and CEO of BlueDot, said his medical analytics company has been monitoring the virus since first detecting signs of an outbreak on Dec. 31 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where most of the early cases are concentrated.

Since the rise of commercial air travel, Khan said humans have become the key vectors, or virus carriers, driving the dispersion of diseases around the world.

BlueDot’s AI-powered system analyzes billions of data points, including airline ticket sales and online news reports, to map how viruses spread through the global transportation network and predict regions that are at the highest risk of an outbreak.

Khan said about 80 per cent of travellers from Wuhan to Canada are headed for Toronto and Vancouver, but he noted that there are no non-stop flights from the Chinese city, which means the volume of travel is relatively low.

BlueDot shares such insights with its clients across the private and public sector to keep them posted on the latest developments as an epidemic evolves, so they can co-ordinate their response, said Khan.

However, he admits that every prediction comes with some degree of uncertainty. For example, researchers are still piecing together the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, and how efficiently the virus is transmitted from person to person.

Meanwhile, laboratory networks across the country are working to make sure tests are available wherever cases may crop up, said Yoav Keynan, the scientific lead at the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases.

The coronavirus comes from same family that caused the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed at least 774 people worldwide, including 44 people in Canada.

Since then, Canada has taken steps to improve communication between provincial, federal and global public-health agencies, Keynan said.

“I think there’s a greater degree of knowledge-sharing across jurisdictions that allows us to track epidemics,” said Keynan, an associate professor in University of Manitoba’s medical microbiology department.

“Canadians should be encouraged by how much better the public-health infrastructure is compared to what it was 17 years ago.”

David Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who was part of Ontario’s response to the SARS outbreak, said the new coronavirus could serve as a  “stress test” for the protocols that have been implemented since.

For example, the virus appears to be highly transmissible in health-care settings, but not outside of them.

That means overcrowded hospitals and emergency rooms could potentially become petri dishes for the infectious disease.

“We’ve seen this movie before,” said Fisman.

“Our infection-control game is better than it was. But we still have this problem with the physical plant of our hospitals, with our emergency rooms, where people are stuck together cheek-by-jowl, and that creates vulnerability.”

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