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As Chinese coronavirus cases surge, Nova Scotia authorities remain vigilant

Health authority has “protocols and policies in place” if the virus is declared an international health crisis

4 min read
caption There are about 200,000 chronic pain patients in Nova Scotia, and the demand for support is growing.
Ben Bogstie

As of Friday the World Health Organization (WHO) had not declared the coronavirus an international public health emergency, but officials in Nova Scotia are keeping an eye on the situation.

While the risk to the province is considered low, the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) has been monitoring developments around the coronavirus. They are also taking precautionary steps, according to Dr. Ian Davis, an infectious disease consultant at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

“The main things we would be doing is increasing awareness for health-care workers, particularly front-line workers,” he said in an interview.

“We already have protocols and policies in place that deal with something similar to this which would be pandemic influenza, which would be dealt with in a very similar fashion, where it isn’t necessarily in our location yet but we are worried about it being imported in and so the precautions that we put in place are really no different than if we were in that situation.”

Davis said the screening is similar, the symptoms are similar and the precautions that would be taken are the same.

A WHO emergency committee meeting was held Wednesday, but the panel of experts were split 50-50 on the issue of whether to issue a public health emergency of international concern. In a news conference after the meeting members of the panel said they needed more information before making a definitive decision.

On Thursday, the committee was also split. That resulted in the panel deciding that the novel coronavirus was not currently an international emergency.

“An international public health concern would be a virus, or particularly a viral infection usually, that had transmission outside of the outbreak area and has had sustained transmission,” Davis said.

Prof. Didier Houssin is the chair of the emergency committee.

“The advice to the director general which is provided by the emergency committee is that now is not the time, that it’s a bit too early to consider that this event is a public health emergency of international concern,” he said during Thursday’s WHO meeting.

In making its decision, the committee cited the low number of cases outside of China and the Chinese government’s efforts to contain the novel coronavirus.

The novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China. Confirmed cases have now been reported in China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States. According to Chinese officials on Friday, there are hundreds of cases in that country causing 24 deaths in Hubei province and one in Hebei province.

Chinese authorities have halted public transportation within Wuhan and cancelled flights and trains departing the city of 11 million people. Several other cities in Hubei province have taken similar measures.

Davis said it is not clear if transmission is sustainable yet, because most people infected with the coronavirus have had direct contact with the epicentre in Wuhan.

The committee will meet again on Feb. 2, or sooner should there be new developments in the case. Novel coronavirus could yet be labelled a public health emergency of international concern.

There are regular coronaviruses that usually only cause minor illness. The problem is when they originate in animals and cross the species barrier to humans and become zoonotic diseases.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are two coronaviruses that made the jump from animals to humans. It is believed novel coronavirus infected its first human at a fresh food market in Wuhan.

caption 2003 image of SARS coronavirus under a microscope.
CDC/ Charles.D. Humphrey and T.G. Ksiazek

Like the novel coronavirus, SARS originated in China and spread to countries around the world. SARS claimed the lives of 44 Canadians, many of whom were health-care workers.

“There’s been a lot of lessons learned from SARS, but also with preparations for other novel viruses like pandemic influenza for instance. So our infection prevention and control programs are much more robust now than they were 10-15 years ago,” said Davis.

The WHO recommends proper hand washing and respiratory etiquette, like coughing into a sleeve.

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