Coronavirus case likely in B.C.; seen as low risk, but there’s still a rush for masks

Face masks were selling out all over the capital region on Tuesday, as health officials announced what is presumed to be the province’s first case of coronavirus, a man in his 40s who lives in Vancouver and recently returned from China.

Despite the announcement of B.C.’s first coronavirus case, the risk of contracting the virus is still considered low, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control said.

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Masks sold out within about an hour of opening at the Rexall pharmacy in the West Shore Tuesday morning, with some purchasers citing prevention of coronavirus or plans for plane travel abroad.

Both Shoppers Drug Marts in Esquimalt and Westshore Town Centre have sold out of masks and have them on back order.

London Drugs in Tillicum Centre had none, and the Rexall pharmacies on the border of View Royal and on the Island Highway were sold out on Tuesday.

Walmart in the Uptown Shopping Centre isn’t expecting masks to arrive until February.

Globally, according to figures today, there were about 6,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 132 deaths. Most of the cases and all the deaths were in China, concentrated in Hubei province, including Wuhan.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said at a news conference that the Vancouver patient tested positive for the coronavirus, but a second test is needed for confirmation. The man regularly works in China, and visited Wuhan for a portion of his time overseas.

He said he wasn’t symptomatic on the plane home to Vancouver, but fell ill 24 hours later, quarantined himself in his home and sought medical attention.

“This case is not unexpected to us,” Henry said, noting the high volume of travel between China and B.C.

“We have been on high alert for a number of weeks now. It just confirms that our surveillance is actually working and that we are detecting people.”

Regular testing is ongoing, she said.

“Given the travel patterns and the family histories and the connections that we have here, I would be absolutely surprised if we did not have more cases.”

The maximum incubation period for most cases of coronavirus is 14 days, but for this new virus, the data show it’s usually three to six days from exposure to when symptoms start, Henry said.

But those who have already travelled to B.C. and other parts of the world could become sick in the next couple of weeks, requiring constant vigilance in testing, assessment and preventive practices, said health officials.

Masks are important in certain situations, said Henry — if someone is sick, the masks help contain droplets that could transmit the virus to another person. Masks and eye protection are also very effective in helping to protect health-care workers.

“Where it’s not known is how effective wearing a mask in the community is when you are not sick yourself,” said Henry, who cautions they might provide a false sense of security.

She said the most important safeguard is to wash your hands regularly, along with covering your face when coughing or sneezing and staying away from others when ill.

Viruses such as coronavirus, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus — all active in B.C. and China right now — have to be inhaled into the lungs to infect someone.

Coronaviruses — a large family of viruses that live in animals and every now and then jump the species barrier and infect humans — are not as infectious as influenza or the measles, said Henry, and must be inhaled deeply into the lungs.

“You have to inhale enough of the virus so it can bind to those receptors,” she said.

“So it’s not something that people can get from casual contact. And we know coronaviruses are in larger droplets that fall quickly out of the air. You have to be in relatively close contact with somebody to be able to inhale those viruses, if [an infected person were to] cough or sneeze.”

Contact needs to be within about two metres for infection, Henry said.

Unless someone is in a health-care setting and very close to an infected person who is coughing, the risk is extremely low, she said.

While it’s more rare, droplets can also fall on hard surfaces that can get on people’s hands and then into their mouths or eyes.

Health officials said British Columbians will be informed as soon as any new cases are confirmed. Ontario announced its first case Jan. 25.

As with other respiratory illnesses, symptoms of coronavirus include fever, dry cough, sore throat and headache, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

Most cases are considered mild to moderate, with a subset of patients who experience more severe illness, with shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. Deaths have been reported among about two to four per cent of detected cases in China.

Henry said one challenge is the amount of misinformation circulating, along with a “very ongoing evolving situation” in China.

“So we are watching this very carefully and we will continue to do that in the coming weeks and months.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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