OTTAWA—The number of Canadians asking Ottawa to help get them out of the coronavirus quarantine zone in China has surged over the past 24 hours and could keep growing as the federal government tries to figure out how to respond, Liberal cabinet ministers said Tuesday.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 126 Canadians have asked the Global Affairs department for “assisted repatriation” from China’s Hubei province, the region where the deadly new strain of respiratory illness emerged in December, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said.
Champagne said government officials still need to speak with the Canadians asking for help to determine what exactly they need, whether any of them are sick, and whether it makes sense to deploy resources to get them out of China.
The 126 is up from eight Canadians who had asked for help on Monday.
Speaking Tuesday outside the House of Commons, Champagne and Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Canada is — for the second straight day — still considering “all options” to help citizens stuck in the Chinese region where authorities have imposed strict travel restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
The options include sending a plane to repatriate them or co-operating with other countries to share transportation out of the country, Champagne said.
The United States and Japan have already chartered planes to remove citizens from the region, while France, South Korea and Mongolia have also planned evacuations, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.
“There are some countries that are proposing various solutions to bring back their citizens. We are in contact with them,” Champagne said, adding that the number of Canadians seeking help could go up overnight Tuesday.
“Once we have the number, we will contact them, assess their individual needs, look at the options we have in front of us, tailor a response that would be a Canadian response,” he said.
Champagne declined to estimate how long it would take for Canada to figure out its response, saying it will depend on when officials speak with all the individuals seeking help.
Hajdu, meanwhile, said the risk for Canadians in China goes beyond contracting the novel coronavirus that, according to the World Health Organization, has killed 106 and infected more than 4,500 around the world. Because of the “strict quarantine” imposed by Chinese authorities, Canadians in the region may have trouble obtaining needed supplies, moving around within cities or be unable to access family members, Hajdu said.
She said health and Global Affairs officials are also developing a plan for what to do if Canadian citizens are repatriated from the affected zone in China.
“This is of utmost priority for me… to make sure we’re protecting the health and safety of Canadians, whether they’re abroad and whether they’re here,” she said.
Earlier Tuesday, health officials in British Columbia reported the first case of the coronavirus in that province: a man who was in isolation at home after travelling to the affected region in China. He is the third case confirmed in Canada, after officials reported a couple in Toronto contracted the virus in recent days.
B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry told reporters in Vancouver Tuesday that the man did not show symptoms of illness until after he returned to the Vancouver region. That means there is no risk of infection to others on his flight from China, she said, because there is “no evidence” the coronavirus can spread before an infected person has symptoms of respiratory illness, such as coughing and sneezing.
Henry stressed that British Columbians should not be alarmed. Officials have planned to see cases of the illness and are well prepared, she said.
“This does not change what we are doing in British Columbia. It confirms that our surveillance is working,” said Henry. “I would have been surprised if we did not have one of two cases.”
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Meanwhile, Air Canada announced it will be cancelling some flights to China.
The cancellations will impact travel to Beijing Capital International Airport, Pudong International airport in Shanghai and Wuhan Tianhe International airport.
Anyone holding tickets to Shanghai between now and Feb. 29 will see their flights cancelled. For those planning to travel to Wuhan, all flights will be cancelled until March 29, according to Air Canada.