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.
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.