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Sudbury officials keeping eye on coronavirus – The Sudbury Star

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An employee in the virology department of a Berlin hospital prepares a test for the new coronavirus REUTERS

AXEL SCHMIDT / REUTERS

While an outbreak of coronavirus in Sudbury is not considered imminent or even likely, health officials are doing their homework and liaising with partners to make sure the city isn’t caught off guard.

Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health with Public Health Sudbury and Districts, said there was a meeting Monday of the Community Control Group – a leadership team for emergency planning that includes herself, the chief of police and city managers – “to make sure we are in a state of readiness.”

Public health also met Friday with clinical providers and education officials “to ensure we had good lines of communication with each other and were all accessing the same sites for valid and credible information, and could ramp up quickly if anything needed to happen,” said Sutcliffe.

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That meeting was scheduled before the first case of the troubling virus was confirmed in a patient in Toronto.

“Just knowing that the situation was occurring globally, we thought let’s at least think about a scenario,” Sutcliffe said. “We don’t have a crystal ball and we can’t spend all of our time and resources to prepare for something that may or may not happen, but we for sure have to be responsible and be ready to respond.”

The Toronto patient had returned with his wife aboard a flight from China, where the couple had visited the Wuhan area. It is here that the new strain of the virus, which has now claimed more than 80 lives, first began to circulate, causing an outbreak of pneumonia.

On Monday, Ontario health officials said the Toronto man’s wife was also presumed to have caught the bug. She was self-isolating at home while awaiting the results of a diagnostic test.

Sutcliffe said there is a “two-step process” to confirm the presence of the coronavirus.

“It’s a swab that goes down the back of your nose into the back of your throat,” she said. “That sample then goes to the Public Health Ontario laboratory in Toronto, and in parallel, it will also get sent to the national microbial lab in Winnipeg for confirmation.”

While that may involve a waiting period, “at least we have a diagnostic test for this, which we did not have for SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) at the same point in time,” she noted.

Sutcliffe was in Sudbury when SARS — a different type of coronavirus — struck Toronto in 1993, killing 44 people. Nobody in Sudbury was infected, but the local health unit was definitely concerned, and Sutcliffe also spent time in Toronto helping to assist with the emergency.

She said public health learned a lot from that crisis and is in a better position now to deal with similar scares.

“Staying really well informed is critically important and we are much better at that since SARS happened 17 years ago,” she said.

Having a case of the new threat confirmed in Toronto might seem a little too close for comfort, but Sutcliffe said it is far from a given that it would spread to Sudbury.

“We’re being told the risk for Ontarians is still low and I certainly believe that to be the case,” she said. “A certain set of circumstances would have to be in place for it to happen in Sudbury, and at this point, it would have to be a travel-related case – perhaps somebody returning from a business trip or a student returning from a trip home.”

She said those working locally and provincially to track the spread of the virus are in a “vigilant” mode, but “certainly are not panicked. I would say the leaders and participants we’ve spoken to, it’s on their radar, they’re staying apprised and ready to mobilize if need be, but otherwise going about their daily business.”

Health Sciences North is definitely paying attention and taking the potential problem seriously.

“We want to assure the public that HSN is following the guidance of the chief medical officer of health and that we have all the recommended processes in place to ensure both our staff and patients remain safe,” the organization said in a statement.

Apart from working with health unit and the city on a coordinated approach to the threat, “we are also actively screening patients who come to the hospital for fever, acute respiratory illness and pneumonia, as well as for any relevant exposure or travel history,” the hospital said.

While there is no vaccine to protect against the new type of virus, Sutcliffe said Sudburians who haven’t yet been immunized for the flu should definitely still do so now.

“We know it is influenza season and numbers show about 3,500 Canadians die every year from this,” she said. “We have a vaccine, and it’s free, but not everybody gets it.”

Symptoms of the coronavirus can be quite similar to those associated with flu and colds – a fever and/or cough, along with difficulty breathing.

Anyone who has paid a recent visit to Wuhan, China, or been in contact with someone who has done so, and develops such symptoms, should avoid contact with others and follow up with their doctor or nurse practitioner, the health unit recommends.

Such individuals are urged to call TeleHealth Ontario or their health-care provider to make special arrangements before going to the emergency department at HSN in order “to help limit the potential spread of infection.”

Sutcliffe said the coronavirus situation is rapidly evolving, and the virus itself could mutate and become more virulent, but “at this point in time, a person is not at risk if they have not travelled to the Wuhan area of China, or been in contact with somebody who has travelled there and is ill themselves.”

So if you are experiencing respiratory symptoms but have no connection to Wuhan, “it would be the same old boring but effective advice,” said Sutcliffe. “Stay home, get lots of fluids, get lots of rest. Make sure you do your best to not infect other people by covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough. Wash your hands. And get your flu shot.”

For more information on the coronavirus and how to reduce your chance of getting an illness and spreading it, visit www.phsd.ca.

sud.editorial@sunmedia.ca

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Flu shots are now free for everyone in Quebec due to overwhelmed hospital ERs

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While the campaign for flu shots has already been underway in Quebec for several weeks, the provincial government announced on Friday that immunization will now be free of charge for any Quebecer over the age of six months.

Previously, only people who met certain criteria (babies, seniors, the chronically ill, etc) were able to get the influenza immunization free of charge, and the vaccination sites set up for COVID-19 were only handling free flu shots. Meanwhile, the general population in Quebec was previously only able to get vaccinated at pharmacies, for a fee.

The decision was made due to the critical state of hospital ERs in the province, particularly at children’s hospitals in Montreal, where kids are being brought in by parents in larger numbers than usual due to rising rates of flu, COVID-19 and RSV infections.

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“With the trio of viruses currently circulating, the influenza vaccine is now available free of charge to all Quebecers who wish to take advantage of it. It’s one more tool to limit the pressure on our network.”

—Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé

To schedule an appointment for a flu shot and/or a COVID-19 shot, please visit the Clic Santé website.

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Deadly Bird Flu Outbreak Is The Worst In U.S. History

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An ongoing outbreak of a deadly strain of bird flu has now killed more birds than any past flare-up in U.S. history.

The virus, known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, has led to the deaths of 50.54 million domestic birds in the country this year, according to Agriculture Department data reported by Reuters on Thursday. That figure represents birds like chickens, ducks and turkeys from commercial poultry farms, backyard flocks and facilities such as petting zoos.

The count surpasses the previous record of 50.5 million dead birds from a 2015 outbreak, according to Reuters.

Separately, USDA data shows at least 3,700 confirmed cases among wild birds.

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Turkeys in a barn on a poultry farm.
Turkeys in a barn on a poultry farm.

Turkeys in a barn on a poultry farm.

On farms, some birds die from the flu directly, while in other cases, farmers kill their entire flocks to prevent the virus from spreading after one bird tests positive. Such farmers have occasionally drawn condemnation from animal welfare advocates for using a culling method known as “ventilation shutdown plus,” which involves sealing off the airways to a barn and pumping in heat to kill the animals.

The virus has raged through Europe and North America since 2021. A variety of wild birds have been affected worldwide, including bald eagles, vultures and seabirds. This month, Peru reported its first apparent outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza after 200 dead pelicans were found on a beach.

Pelicans suspected to have died from highly pathogenic avian influenza are seen on a beach in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 24.Pelicans suspected to have died from highly pathogenic avian influenza are seen on a beach in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 24.
Pelicans suspected to have died from highly pathogenic avian influenza are seen on a beach in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 24.

Pelicans suspected to have died from highly pathogenic avian influenza are seen on a beach in Lima, Peru, on Nov. 24.

The migration of infected wild birds has been a major cause of the spread. Health and wildlife officials urge anyone who keeps domestic birds to prevent contact with their wild counterparts.

While health experts do not generally consider highly pathogenic avian influenza to be a major risk to mammals, a black bear cub in Alaska was euthanized earlier this month after contracting the virus. Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen told the Juneau Empire newspaper that the young cub had a weak immune system.

Over the summer, avian flu also spread among seals in Maine, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believed contributed to an unusually high number of seal deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the risk “to the general public” from the bird flu outbreak is low. However, the agency recommends precautions like wearing personal protective equipment and thoroughly washing hands for people who have prolonged contact with birds that may be infected.

In April, a Colorado prisoner working at a commercial farm became the first person in the U.S. to test positive for the new strain, though he was largely asymptomatic.

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Successful tests in animal models pave way for strategy for universal flu vaccine

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An experimental mRNA-based vaccine against all 20 known subtypes of influenza virus provided broad protection from otherwise lethal flu strains in initial tests, according to a study.

This could serve one day as a general preventative measure against future flu pandemics, the researchers from University of Pennsylvania, US, said.

According to the study, tests in animal models showed that the vaccine dramatically reduced signs of illness and protected from death, even when the animals were exposed to flu strains different from those used in making the vaccine.

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The “multivalent” vaccine, which the researchers described in a paper published in the journal Science, used the same messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) technology employed in the Pfizer and Moderna SARS-CoV-2 vaccines, the study said.

This mRNA technology that enabled those Covid-19 vaccines was pioneered at Penn, the study said.

“The idea here is to have a vaccine that will give people a baseline level of immune memory to diverse flu strains, so that there will be far less disease and death when the next flu pandemic occurs,” said study senior author Scott Hensley.

Influenza viruses periodically cause pandemics with enormous death tolls. The best known of these was the 1918-19 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which killed at least tens of millions of people worldwide.

Flu viruses can circulate in birds, pigs, and other animals, and pandemics can start when one of these strains jumps to humans and acquires mutations that adapt it better for spreading among humans.

Current flu vaccines are merely “seasonal” vaccines that protect against recently circulating strains, but would not be expected to protect against new, pandemic strains. The strategy employed by the Penn researchers is to vaccinate using immunogens – a type of antigen that stimulates immune responses – from all known influenza subtypes in order to elicit broad protection, the study said.

The vaccine is not expected to provide “sterilizing” immunity that completely prevents viral infections. Instead, the new study showed that the vaccine elicited a memory immune response that can be quickly recalled and adapted to new pandemic viral strains, significantly reducing severe illness and death from infections.

“It would be comparable to first-generation SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccines, which were targeted to the original Wuhan strain of the coronavirus.

“Against later variants such as Omicron, these original vaccines did not fully block viral infections, but they continue to provide durable protection against severe disease and death,” said Hensley.

The experimental vaccine, when injected and taken up by the cells of recipients, started producing copies of a key flu virus protein, the hemagglutinin protein, for all twenty influenza hemagglutinin subtypes—H1 through H18 for influenza A viruses, and two more for influenza B viruses.

“For a conventional vaccine, immunizing against all these subtypes would be a major challenge, but with mRNA technology it’s relatively easy,” Hensley said.

In mice, the mRNA vaccine elicited high levels of antibodies, which stayed elevated for at least four months, and reacted strongly to all 20 flu subtypes. Moreover, the vaccine seemed relatively unaffected by prior influenza virus exposures, which can skew immune responses to conventional influenza vaccines.

The researchers observed that the antibody response in the mice was strong and broad, whether or not the animals had been exposed to flu virus before.

Hensley and his colleagues currently are designing human clinical trials, he said. The researchers envision that, if those trials are successful, the vaccine may be useful for eliciting long-term immune memory against all influenza subtypes in people of all age groups, including young children.

“We think this vaccine could significantly reduce the chances of ever getting a severe flu infection,” Hensley said.

In principle, he added, the same multivalent mRNA strategy can be used for other viruses with pandemic potential, including coronaviruses.

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