Canadian health officials look to China for lessons in how to prepare for COVID-19

TORONTO — Public health officials are urgently warning that COVID-19 could gain ground in North America, while the Canadian doctor who led a team in China to study the virus says the world “is simply not ready” for a potential pandemic.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggested Tuesday the virus will likely spread far and wide.

“Current global circumstances suggest it’s likely that this virus will cause a pandemic,” she said.

Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada, says officials are ready to take strong measures to guard against outbreaks, which “could perhaps include some closures of mass gatherings, for example, where there is higher likelihood of spread.”

Some Canadian hospitals are already preparing for a potential outbreak, including Ontario’s Scarborough Health Network, which has 18 beds dedicated for any patients infected with COVID-19.

“We have all of the hands on deck to provide the services for patients if we get a big influx,” Dr. Dick Zoutman, Chief of Staff at Scarborough Health Network, told CTV News.

Nearly four per cent of medical workers in China have become infected, so enhanced protection for staff is critical, said Dr. Neil Rau, a medical microbiologist at Halton Healthcare Services and CTV’s infectious diseases expert.

This includes bringing in extra gowns, masks and gloves.

“We have to have enough protective equipment for health care providers to protect them from getting the infection,” he said. “We have to protect our health care providers from getting the infection, so we don’t lose confidence in the health care staff and lose the ability to take care of patients who are sick.”

COVID-19 has also shown itself to be particularly harmful for those aged 80 and older, meaning extra precautions in seniors’ facilities are paramount.

“Nursing homes are a perfect set-up for a virus like this to take off,” Rau added.

In China, one strategy that has proved effective is the increase in telemedicine, where people who aren’t very sick stay home and received consultations online.

Dr. Vera Etches, the medical officer of health in Ottawa, suggests people stock up on prescriptions if infections start to spread.

“Even groceries that are non-perishable is good to have extra on hand if you can, so you don’t have to run out to the grocery story if you are feeling ill,” she said.

On Tuesday, Dr. Bruce Aylward, an epidemiologist and an assistant director-general for the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke in Geneva about his recent visit to China as the lead of an independent team of experts who examined the COVID-19 outbreak, which has sickened more than 78,000 and killed more than 2,700 in the country’s mainland.

The group consisted of 13 international experts and 12 Chinese nationals who travelled to Beijing, Guangdong province, Sichuan province, and the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak, to gauge the impact of Chinese measures to care for the infected and prevent further spread of the respiratory virus.

After visiting with hundreds of health-care workers, government officials, volunteers, and residents across the country for a week, Aylward said his team determined that China had successfully managed to decrease the number of new cases with their “robust” approach.

“It’s the unanimous assessment of the team that they have changed the course of this outbreak,” he told a press conference in Geneva. “Hundreds of thousands of people in China did not get COVID-19 because of this aggressive response.”

According to Aylward, China’s response to the pathogen includes case finding, tracing contact, social distancing, and movement restriction. He said the country has successfully reacted to the outbreak by taking a differentiated and tailored approach to various regions so as to not exhaust their resources.

The epidemiologist said one of the things he was most struck by during his visit was the country’s mobilization of people. He described China’s collective action and co-operation in their response as “phenomenal.”

“We spoke to hundreds of people in hotels, on trains, in planes, who are quite outside the system, and they all shared this sense of responsibility, accountability to be part of this,” he recalled.

In Wuhan, in particular, Aylward said he witnessed the population band together to fight the outbreak.

“As you drive into this city in the dead of night with the lights on, it’s a ghost town, but behind every window in every skyscraper there are people co-operating with this response,” he said. “It’s staggering.”

Aylward also praised China’s ability to repurpose the “machinery of government,” such as transportation and other infrastructure, to respond to the health emergency. He said the country’s use of technology and science was also important in ensuring the response was timely and appropriate across all regions, including rural ones.

“What China demonstrates is, where this goes is within the control of our decisions to apply this kind of rigour and approach to this disease and its outbreak,” he said.

As China gets a handle on the spread of COVID-19 within its borders, the rest of the world is dealing with increasing numbers of cases popping up since the virus was identified eight weeks ago.

In South Korea, there have been nearly 1,000 confirmed cases of the virus while Japan grapples with approximately 860 cases, most of which originated on a cruise ship that made port there in the beginning of February.

Elsewhere, Iranian authorities have reported 15 deaths from the illness so far while Italy has become the site of the largest outbreak in Europe with nearly 300 cases.

In North America, the U.S. has confirmed 53 cases and Canada has reported 11, all in Ontario and B.C.

Aylward said at this point, the rest of the world is “simply not ready” for a COVID-19 outbreak within their own borders. He said countries should already be increasing their hospital bed capacity, stocking up on ventilators and oxygen supplies, developing a quarantine plan, and assessing their laboratory capabilities.

The WHO expert stressed that the rest of the world can and should learn from China’s experience in dealing with a virus outbreak.

“At this point, the world needs the experience of China,” he said. “Access the expertise in China. They’ve done this at scale, they know what they’re doing, they’re really, really good at it, and they’re keen to help.”

In conclusion, Aylward said his mission to China showed that it’s possible to affect the course of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“You can change the shape of this but it takes a very aggressive and tough program,” he said.

With files from CTV National News Medical Correspondent Avis Favaro and senior producer Elizabeth St. Philip

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