The number of “people under investigation” for the coronavirus in Ontario has dropped by one-third but persistent questions about the illness that has left central China in lockdown have prompted Toronto’s chief medical officer to set up a telephone hotline.
The hotline is aimed at concerned passengers of the China Southern Airlines flight that brought an infected man and his wife to Pearson International Airport last Wednesday.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, told the Star that most of the approximately 30 passengers sitting beside or within three rows of the couple have been contacted by her department, or by public health staff in other cities where the travellers live.
“To my knowledge, all is well with them,” she said Tuesday.
The Ontario government said the number of potential coronavirus cases dropped to 11 from the 19 it had announced on Monday as tests came back negative for patients in isolation at hospitals or in their homes. One of the cases ruled out was at the Niagara Health system hospital in St. Catharines.
Health officials are erring on the side of caution when it comes to testing people who have been to the Wuhan area of China, because the virus’s symptoms of cough and fever are similar to the flu and other respiratory infections common at this time of year.
“This means that most individuals who are tested are unlikely to be infected with the 2019 novel coronavirus,” the Ontario Ministry of Health says on its website about the illness, which has killed more than 100 people in China as the number of cases there and around the world continues to grow.
British Columbia has reported its first presumptive case, a man in his 40s who is recovering at home awaiting final test results after returning from a trip to Wuhan.
The decision to limit the tracing of a limited group of passengers and aircrew instead of the entire planeload of people is based on the distance that infected droplets or secretions can spread from a cough or sneeze and time of exposure to anyone with the virus.
“It’s passengers with more than 15 minutes of face-to-face contact,” de Villa said.
Faced with a barrage of calls, the city’s health department is inviting people who were on China Southern Flight CZ311 from Guangzhou on Jan. 22 to dial 416-338-7600 weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with any questions.
“We have advised people who were not in that close contact zone … if you develop signs an symptoms, we’ll walk you through what you need to do,” said de Villa.
“We have been doing this to inform these people that they have been exposed to a potential health risk, and so they know what signs and symptoms they should look out for, and when and what type of medical treatment they need to seek if that becomes necessary.”
The hotline is also open to members of the general public with questions about the new variant of coronavirus and is intended to keep Toronto public health’s other lines free for other health concerns.
De Villa said the risk to the public remains low.
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Outside China, health officials are aiming to limit the virus to people who contracted it in China, and to prevent it spreading from person-to-person. That has already happened in Germany, which confirmed its first case Tuesday — a 33-year-old man in Bavaria who became infected after spending time with a colleague recently arrived from China.
Some airlines are cutting back or cancelling flights to China, and Hong Kong has cancelled ferries to and from mainland China. The United States said Tuesday that it will expand screening of incoming passengers from China to 20 airports, up from five.
The World Health Organization’s latest report says there are 4,593 confirmed cases of the virus around the world, including 4,537 in China — where 6,973 cases are suspected, with 976 people in severe condition and 106 deaths.
Outside China, there are 56 cases confirmed in 14 countries and no deaths.