Signals of Canada’s battle against the novel coronavirus flared in Western Canada on Thursday, amid a surge of cases in British Columbia and the first instance of someone testing positive in Alberta.
Among the new diagnoses in B.C. was a “community case” — in which investigators don’t know yet how the patient became infected. It appears to be the first known COVID-19 case in Canada that is not travel related.
There was also the first instance in which a person — a Seattle woman — tested positive after travelling into B.C. from neighbouring Washington state, which is currently dealing with an outbreak. The state has so far seen 10 deaths.
“Clearly that is of concern to us, and we are working with our neighbours in Washington state to try and determine where her exposure might have been,” said B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
An average of 18,000 cars enter B.C. each day from Washington state. No COVID-19-related screening measures have been implemented at those border crossings.
“There is likely, at least one more person out there, who has this disease or has had this, and we need to find them to stop further transmission,” Henry said.
The announcements came against the backdrop of news that a private university in Vancouver had closed its doors in the wake of a case, and reports that B.C. hospitals have been dealing with the theft of hand sanitizer and masks.
There are now 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in B.C. Thirteen of those cases are linked to travel to Iran, said B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix.
Henry added that officials had expected the additional B.C. cases for some time. The new COVID-19 cases are “not surprising to us,” said Henry. “The first four of these cases are actually household contacts of cases from last week.”
Meanwhile, the Alberta government said it is already taking measures to contain the virus after the province’s first presumptive case was announced Thursday by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health.
The Calgary woman, said to be in her 50s, is believed to have contracted the virus while aboard the Grand Princess cruise ship. The ship is being held off the California coast because of concerns about coronavirus and still has more than 200 Canadians on board.
The woman returned to Alberta on Feb. 21 and has been isolated since Feb. 28. She is expected to make a full recovery at home, said Hinshaw.
“We are taking this extremely seriously,” Hinshaw said. “Public health measures are already being put in place to prevent spread of the virus.”
Provincial testing came back positive on the woman, but Alberta is awaiting further results from the national lab. Hinshaw said they are still treating it as a case of coronavirus.
She recommended that any Albertans who were on board the Grand Princess cruise ship stay at home for two weeks even if they’re feeling well. She said the risk “is still considered low” for contracting coronavirus in Alberta.
“We do know that there were other Albertans on that ship who have since returned,” said Hinshaw. “We don’t know how many.” She said they were working with the federal government to get lists of passengers that were on the ship.
In B.C., the eight new cases break down as follows: Four are household contacts of people who tested positive for COVID-19 last week, another case is a Seattle resident who was visiting family in the Lower Mainland who tested positive during her visit here, two others have returned from recent travel to Iran, and the last case is a so-called “community case” in the Lower Mainland where authorities don’t know yet how they contracted the virus.
Health authorities are currently trying to identify who the community case patient may have been in contact with.
Dix also responded to reports that there have been thefts of hand sanitizer and face masks at some B.C. hospitals, saying he doesn’t believe it’s widespread but that the government condemns that kind of behaviour and would take action against it.
“We are making our own preparations to ensure we have the equipment we need,” he said.
These announcements come after a private university in downtown Vancouver announced Thursday morning it was closing its campus until Sunday after learning that one of its students has a presumptive case of COVID-19.
The student and their roommate are both in isolation, according to a statement from University Canada West on Thursday.
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The student’s father, who has tested positive for COVID-19, had been visiting from overseas.
The university is suspending on-campus classes and conducting a “full disinfection of all campuses” as a “precautionary measure,” the school said in a news release.
Courses will instead be delivered online for the remainder of the week, it explained, with on-campus classes resuming Monday.
The university said it has provided information and advice to students and staff who may have been in close contact with the affected individuals.
The private university was established in 2004 and offers business and arts programs at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Its students come from more than 45 countries around the world, according to the University Canada West website.
As of Wednesday, there had been 13 cases of novel coronavirus in British Columbia. Health officials announced Wednesday a COVID-19 patient had been hospitalized.
The other 12 patients have been asked to isolate themselves and recover in their own homes. Four of them have since recovered from COVID-19, tested negative for the virus and are out of isolation.
At this point, it’s unclear if Canadian health authorities will require companies and schools to shut down or implement remote working protocols if coronavirus cases spike.
This has been the case in China, where quarantine rules shuttered schools and forced millions of people to work at home for the first time. Some Canadian private schools and companies are already planning for the possibility.
“We want to be prepared, otherwise it will just make a potentially chaotic situation more scary,” says Jeremy Shaki, CEO and co-founder of Lighthouse Labs, a private coding and data education institute with schools in six cities across Canada.
Starting next week, the institute will pilot a program through which students will have the option to learn from home one day a week, but will be able to drop into the classroom in person to see teachers if they choose.
In the following week, students will have the option to study remotely through video-streaming lectures and other digital interactive tools three days a week, Shaki told the Star.
“We’re not an online school so we want to work out the kinks ahead of time.”
Health officials need to strike the delicate balance of reacting without appearing to overreact, said Dr. Kerry Bowman, professor bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto.
Canadian authorities are not implementing quarantines or asking people without symptoms to stay home from work — and that’s the right way to go, he said.
“What worries me is in these early days, if people are being asked to do all sorts of unreasonable things, there’s no compensation, we could really lose a lot of trust that we need to be building,” he said.
“Getting the trust and support of the public onside for the potential quarantine patterns that may lie ahead is extremely important.”
Putting people in quarantine — where people without symptoms are told to isolate themselves — is “quite rare” in Western democracies, Bowman added.