OTTAWA — Health Minister Patty Hajdu is encouraging Canadians to stockpile food and medication in their homes in case they or a loved one should fall ill with the novel coronavirus, despite the relatively low risk of contracting the disease in Canada.
It's good advice for any potential crisis from a viral outbreak to power outages, she said Wednesday.
"It's good to be prepared because things can change quickly," she said.
"It's really about, first of all, making sure that you do have enough supplies so if someone in your family becomes ill, if you yourself become ill, that you have what you need to survive for a week or so without going outside."
She also suggested people should do what they can to ease the burden on the health care system in the meantime by staying home if they're sick, washing their hands and getting flu shots.
The virus known as COVID-19 is different from influenza and the flu shot doesn't provide protection against it, but the fewer people who are sick, the less strain on doctors and hospitals.
Canada's deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo told the House of Commons health committee Thursday that it will take more than the health system to curb the spread of the virus if it hits Canada.
"The time has come for all Canadians to think more about the need to prepare resources to manage a widespread community outbreak," Njoo said.
There are two things private citizens can do right now to help, he said: stay healthy and stay informed.
About 81,000 people around the world have now become ill with COVID-19, with the World Health Organization reporting cases in 37 countries outside China. There has been a rash of new cases appearing in Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan over the past week, and officials fear the virus could spread undetected in other countries that lack the capacity to monitor people for signs of infection.
Ontario health officials announced Wednesday morning they'd detected the 12th case in Canada so far. Each of the Canadian cases so far can be traced to a particular visit abroad.
Though the government's containment efforts within Canada have so far been successful at preventing "community spread," — transmission from person to person in Canada — the global picture makes it more and more likely Canada will face an outbreak as well.
As the virus reaches more countries, Hajdu said, travellers should recognize there could be a risk if they leave Canada.
"It's important that people know that international travel may have exposed them to the novel coronavirus and they may not know," she said.
The latest advice the government has given to people returning to Canada is to monitor themselves for potential symptoms, no matter where they travelled, and to contact local public-health units if they have concerns.
"As the coronavirus changes and travels across the globe, it's getting more and more difficult to isolate countries that are more specifically affected," Hajdu said.
People travelling for spring break should think carefully about where they and their families are planning to go, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.
Champagne suggested travellers examine the online advisories posted by Global Affairs Canada before leaving for their vacations, but noted the federal government can't predict whether the coronavirus will spread further.
"We'll continue to provide all the information so people can make their best assessment, what's right for them," Champagne said.
Heather Jeffrey, an assistant deputy minister of foreign affairs, reminded the committee Wednesday that some countries hit with the sudden spread of COVID-19 have closed their borders, and some commercial airlines have cancelled flights to those regions.
Champagne said it's important for Canadians to register with Global Affairs Canada whenever they leave the country, so that authorities can contact them easily if an emergency develops while they are away.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 26, 2020.
—With files from The Associated Press
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press