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SARS outbreak prepared health unit for circumstances like coronavirus: Official

'It wouldn’t be surprising if we did get a case in Canada, and with Barrie so close to the major hub of Toronto, we aren’t out of the woods for such viruses,' says associate medical officer of health

Many people are comparing a new virus outbreak to SARS, but Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit officials are confident that Canada is more prepared than it was 17 years ago.

The coronavirus is a new respiratory virus with pneumonia-like symptoms that emerged in Wuhan City, China late last year.

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause illness from the common cold to more severe diseases, such as SARS. 

Dr. Colin Lee, associate medical officer with the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, told BarrieToday that while there are similarities between the two viruses, there are also key differences from a prevention point of view.

“The coronavirus itself has many qualities that are similar to SARS,” Lee said. “From the symptoms to the fact it likely originated from animals, there are some things we see that we did when SARS was prevalent.

“That said, a very key difference here is from a preventive and control aspect," he added. "We are months ahead with this latest outbreak than we were for SARS. Many steps we use now, like screening at a medical facility and identifying anyone with symptoms of an outbreak, did not exist pre-SARS. We are a lot more prepared because of SARS.”

SARS coronavirus was identified in 2003 and is thought to be an animal virus from an as-yet-uncertain animal reservoir, perhaps bats. It spread to other animals and first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002.

In 2003, the virus made its way to Toronto and ended up infecting 438 patient and killing 44.

While the risk of the new coronavirus remains low for our region, Lee says the potential is always there and Barrie isn’t immune to these international outbreaks. 

“As of right now, there are two cases in the U.S., and there is a lot of travel between North America and China,” Lee said. “It wouldn’t be surprising if we did get a case in Canada, and with Barrie so close to the major hub of Toronto, we aren’t out of the woods for such viruses.”

Lee also said that, so far, it appears that this new virus is not as strong as the SARS virus.

The health unit is working within its infectious diseases emergency response plan, provincial screening recommendations are being provided to health-care facilities, and the disease is now reportable to public health agencies to track and investigate cases and close contacts.

The federal government also announced today it would be stepping up preventive measures to ensure the control of the coronavirus. Screening at airport kiosks will now include questions regarding recent travel to Wuhan, China in the previous 14 days. Fact sheets are also being developed in English, French and Chinese for people who travelled to China but may not be displaying symptoms.

Hospitals, including Orillia’s, are far from panic mode.

Cheryl Harrison, executive vice-president of Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, also said a lot was learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak. Hospitals have since taken further steps to ensure they have an adequate stock of equipment needed to screen and treat patients in the event of another outbreak.

Communication among governments and health-care providers has also improved.

“With SARS, because of the uncertainty, things changed often,” Harrison said, adding that led to some communication issues.

With the coronavirus, “people know what it is and they know how to identify it, which is very different from some other outbreaks,” she said.

Hospitals are keeping a close eye on the spread of the virus and are being informed about how to detect it.

“The most important information we’re receiving is how to screen for potential patients, should they show up,” Harrison said, noting staff would look for symptoms and find out about a patient’s travel history. “Our hospital is well prepared.”

Human coronaviruses most commonly spread from an infected person to others, just like influenza or a cold, by coughing and sneezing, close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands, or touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.

Symptoms are usually mild to moderate and can include runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, and a general feeling of being unwell.

If you have a fever and symptoms of lower respiratory illness (cough and feeling unwell) and have travelled from Wuhan, China in the 14 days before your symptoms started, or have been in close contact with a person who may have this infection, officials say you should be assessed by a health-care provider. If possible, call ahead to let them know you’re coming so infection control measures can be put in place.

You can protect yourself by washing your hands often with soap and water, or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if your hands are not visibly dirty. You can help to reduce the spread of respiratory infections such as coronavirus by covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing and by staying home when you are sick.

— With files from Nathan Taylor


Shawn Gibson

About the Author: Shawn Gibson

Shawn Gibson is a staff writer based on Barrie
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