Canada has recorded its first death from the new coronavirus, a turning point that came as the Prime Minister asked every province to report on the “critical supply or capacity gaps” that could hamper the country’s response to the virus.
The elderly man who died of COVID-19 on Sunday night lived at a North Vancouver nursing home where two workers and at least one other resident are also infected, making the facility the site of Canada’s first coronavirus outbreak.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu called the death, “deeply saddening,” and said the federal government is preparing to provide the equipment and money needed to fight the virus, which has infected about 115,000 people and killed more than 4,000 worldwide.
Canada reported 77 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, as of Monday night, up from 66 the day before.
As British Columbia officials worked to contain the nursing-home outbreak, other Canadians fought the virus on multiple fronts: Contact tracers rushed to identify people who might have been exposed to passengers on virus-riddled cruise ships; a member of Parliament and a Toronto city councillor isolated themselves because of possible coronavirus exposure linked to a Washington conference; and Quebec announced it would open three dedicated clinics to handle the expected onslaught of requests for coronavirus testing and care.
The Public Health Agency of Canada, meanwhile, officially advised Canadians to avoid cruise ships, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland sent a letter asking all premiers to flag any gaps in their preparedness.
“We are already leading a bulk procurement of personal protective equipment in which many of you are participating,” the letter said. “We are ready to convene and help.”
Still, political and public-health leaders said there was no need – yet – for Canada to close schools, cancel mass gatherings or restrict out-of-country travel, even as March break looms.
“These things have implications,” Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, said of scrapping large events. “So it’s something that needs to be discussed for each mass gathering, and hopefully we won’t get to that point.”
Experts are divided on whether and when Canada should take the kinds of extreme measures that have paralyzed much of China, where the virus first emerged, and northern Italy, the site of the deadliest outbreak outside China. Italy extended strict quarantine measures to the whole country Monday.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, has said that countries where the virus has spread in the community should contemplate the most serious cancellations and restrictions.
“The threat of a pandemic has become very real,” Dr. Tedros said Monday.
Canada is aware of some local transmission of the coronavirus, but so far it is limited to the outbreak at B.C.'s Lynn Valley Care Centre.
On Saturday, B.C. revealed that its first confirmed instance of community spread – that is, a confirmed case with no recent travel history or clear links to other cases – is a health-care worker at the care home.
On Monday, Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said it is becoming apparent that this person, a woman in her 50s, was exposed to the virus at work, and did not bring it into the facility. The woman recently worked at two other health-care facilities, Dr. Henry added.
“What we do know is that, very likely, both health-care workers and both residents that we know of now, were infected from someone else within that setting,” Dr. Henry said. “The investigation is going on to determine exactly who, and how that happened.”
Janine McCready, an infectious diseases physician at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital, said that in order to avoid the type of uncontrolled outbreak of COVID-19 seen in countries such as Italy and Iran, Canada needs to move forward with plans to cancel large gatherings, such as sporting events, as well as the closing of schools.
“The sooner we do [those measures], the more effective they’re going to be,” Dr. McCready said. “We want to be like Singapore or Hong Kong, not like Italy or Iran or even Seattle."
However, Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network, said Canada is at a critical “in between” moment, with cases ramping up but only one confirmed case of local human-to-human transmission, in B.C.
"Closing schools, at this point in my mind, doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Hota said. “We don’t have [much] community spread and it’s not really clear what the role is of schools in spreading this, to be honest.”
David Fisman, head of the epidemiology division at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said he was particularly worried about what would happen after thousands of Canadians returned from spring break abroad.
He said he feared that limited testing could be masking a “massive uncontrolled epidemic” in a favourite destination for Canadians: the United States.
"March break represents a tremendous risk to Canadians,” Dr. Fisman said. “It’s sort of like a big anti-vaxxer-measles party, but with COVID and Canadian tourists.”
With reports from Kristy Kirkup, Laura Stone, Jeff Gray and James Keller
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