A group of 23 Chinese-Canadian doctors have signed an open letter urging that everyone returning from China enter a voluntary, 14-day quarantine, a surprising counterpoint to the softer approach espoused by public-health officials.
Dr. Stanley Zheng, the Toronto family physician who drafted the missive, went further in an interview Wednesday.
He said he believes “unequivocally” the federal government should make such isolation periods mandatory for all people arriving here from China and the world’s other COVID-19 “hot spots.” South Korea, Iran and Italy have also had significant outbreaks recently.
Current government protocols for dealing with the novel coronavirus are not tough enough to hold off the emerging infection, suggests the letter from the Toronto-area doctors.
“We are a step ahead of the policy … but we believe it’s the right thing to do,” said Zheng, who noted he and his colleagues are on the “front lines,” serving patients daily who have just returned from China.
“This is about containing the virus, this is about isolation of the virus, not isolation of people,” he said. “It has nothing to do with discrimination whatsoever. It’s a global fight against this virus. Let’s contain it if we can.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) requires people who have been in Wuhan — the Chinese city at the epicentre of the new epidemic — to isolate themselves for 14 days after landing in Canada.
Others who come from China are urged to monitor their symptoms and report any that could be signs of COVID-19 to local public-health authorities, but not to automatically self-quarantine.
Zheng said the letter was written Tuesday night after public-health officials warned that the new coronavirus could soon turn into a pandemic, potentially spreading widely between people in Canada.
This is about isolation of the virus, not isolation of people
Those comments prompted panic in the Chinese-Canadian community, with many people stockpiling food and medication, actions he said will do little to protect them. Getting them to stay home for two weeks after returning from China makes much more sense, said the physician.
In fact, he said virtually all of his patients, as well as friends and acquaintances, have already been going into quarantine on their own after recent China trips. But he is aware that some do not.
The letter warns that even infected people with no symptoms can spread the virus, and that they’re most likely to sicken the people dearest to them.
“If you transmit it to somebody, who will this person be? Those will be your close family members, the person who greets you at the airport, hugs you,” Zheng said. “Your wife, parents, kids, very close friends.”
Passengers arriving on flights from China are subject to screening now, with questionnaires asking if they have been in Wuhan and signs directing them to report any coronavirus-like symptoms, or contact with an infected person.
Only those who have been in Hubei province, though, are expected to quarantine themselves even if they have no symptoms.
Asked about the Toronto physicians’ letter, a Public Health Agency spokeswoman referred to the “ample information” the department provides online for returning travellers and other Canadians about coronavirus.
The material says PHAC officials are monitoring the spread of COVID-19 overseas, but that “the risk to Canadian travellers abroad is generally low but will vary depending on the destination.”
Despite the lack of a directive from government officials, Zheng said most people getting off flights from China are, in fact, going into quarantine on their own. Networks of “thousands” of volunteers have sprung up to help those isolating themselves.
The last thing I wanted to do to this country is bring a virus in
After finishing his two weeks at home, one patient told the doctor ” ‘Canada is my country, my country of choice. The last thing I wanted to do to this country is bring a virus in,’ ” Zheng said. “That’s noble.”
Doctors treating the Chinese-Canadian community also consult with colleagues in China, learning what measures to try to contain COVID-19 have worked there and what have not. It gives them a unique perspective, augmenting the evidence they glean from medical journals, said Zheng.
He first heard about an unknown pneumonia in Wuhan in late December, and started asking patients in January if they’d been to the area — before doctors received any official advice to do so.
Zheng said he and his colleagues serving the community have yet to be consulted by public-health officials.