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Both British Columbia – passengers seen here on Jan. 23, 2020 arriving at the Vancouver International Airport – and Alberta have said they are testing samples from a small, unspecified number of patients.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

At least 20 patients in Canada have been tested for the novel coronavirus that is spreading swiftly across China, but so far no cases have been confirmed in this country.

Hospitals, doctors and public-health officials across Canada are casting a wide net in their search for the SARS-like virus, which means they are sometimes testing specimens from patients who’ve returned from anywhere in China – not just Wuhan, the epicentre of an outbreak that has killed at least 41 and sickened more than 1,000 others.

“It’s imperative that, should we see a suspected case, we take all precautions,” Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s Chief Public Health Officer, said. “We are going to see that, worldwide, many, many more people will be tested than we actually find cases of, and that’s a good thing because we don’t want to miss a case.”

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As of late Thursday afternoon, Ontario had either tested or was in the process of testing 14 cases, according to Vanessa Allen, chief of medical microbiology at Public Health Ontario’s laboratory.

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Testing is complete in five of those cases and all have come back negative for the new virus, known as 2019-nCoV, Dr. Allen added.

Samples from patients’ noses and throats have also been sent to the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg to be tested in parallel with the provincial lab.

Doctors are testing patients with mild symptoms who had been to Wuhan as well as people with more severe symptoms who had recently anywhere in China out of an abundance of caution.

“We’re doing extra stages of testing to make sure [we’re] extremely good at picking up potential cases and also ruling out any cases,” Dr. Allen said. “That’s why it takes a little bit longer. But it’s still very fast. It’s really 24 hours, and people are working throughout the day and night to make that happen.”

Quebec has tested five potential cases, four of which have come back negative for 2019-nCoV.

A fifth case is still under investigation, said Marie-Claude Lacasse, a spokeswoman for Quebec Health Ministry.

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Both British Columbia and Alberta have said they are testing samples from a small, unspecified number of patients.

Tom McMillan, a spokesman for Alberta Health, said Thursday that at least one patient – and possibly more – has been tested for the novel coronavirus, but he added that a confirmed case was unlikely.

Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, said Thursday that health-care workers across the country continue to be on guard for cases of the novel coronavirus, despite the World Health Organization saying it was not yet prepared to declare 2019-nCoV an international public-health emergency.

WHO officials said it was too early to take that step because there is no evidence yet of sustained human transmission of the virus outside China. Cases have now been confirmed in Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan and the United States, but the infected patients had all travelled to Wuhan, a central Chinese city that has effectively been quarantined.

In Canada, screening of arrivals at airports in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver continues.

A new question has been added to electronic kiosks at the airports, asking passengers if they’ve travelled to Wuhan. If they have, and they’re feeling ill, they will be referred to quarantine officers.

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Those who are feeling well will be given educational material about what to do if they fall ill within a few weeks of returning.

Canada is not considering using thermal scanners to screen passengers from China for fevers as they enter Canada, Dr. Tam said.

“In our experience during SARS, we scanned millions of people and didn’t pick up a single case,” she said.

That’s because coronaviruses tend to have long incubation periods; people can be infected but not develop respiratory symptoms or fevers for as long as two weeks.

“At the border, the most critical opportunity is to educate the travelling public so they’ll know what to do when they actually have symptoms," Dr. Tam said.

University Health Network and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto are two of the hospitals that have already seen suspected cases of 2019-nCoV and ruled them out through testing.

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Susy Hota, the medical director of infection prevention and control at UHN, said two patients were isolated and cared for by medical staff in gloves, gowns and tight-fitting face masks before testing determined they did not have 2019-noCoV.

A spokeswoman for Sunnybrook confirmed by e-mail that a suspected case there tested negative for the virus.

Screening in the emergency room for a travel history to Wuhan is critical, Dr. Hota added. So far, the hospital is limiting the flagging of patients to those who’ve travelled to Wuhan, as opposed to all of China.

“We don’t want to pull that trigger too quickly, because unnecessarily we’ll be isolating too many people,” she said, adding that could change, depending on how the outbreak in China evolves.

With a report from Andrea Woo

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