(UPDATED Feb 23) Sixth Case of COVID-19 Coronavirus in Vancouver called a Sentinel Event

Note: This article is a follow-up to an earlier article about COVID-19 coronavirus in the Vancouver area that was posted on February 6th, 2020. Please note this article was updated twice on February 23rd, with the updates posted below.

Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry announced Thursday, February 20th that a woman in her 30s who just returned from Iran this week is British Columbia’s sixth case of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus.  The woman was assessed at a hospital and is now in self-isolation at home in the Fraser Health region. Health officials won’t say which area she is in, but only that the Fraser Health region spans from Burnaby to Hope[1].

Note: The north shore (North Vancouver) is well known for its vibrant Iranian community, but so is Coquitlam, which is part of the Fraser Health region.

Health officials are now investigating details of the woman’s travel and working to determine whether other passengers on her flight home will need to be notified and tested.

This case is unusual in that the travel was to Iran, and not China or Singapore. Dr. Henry said that this is what is called a “sentinel event”, which is “a marker that something may be going on broader than what we expect[1].”

Earlier this week, on February 16th two Canadians returned to British Columbia from having been on the Westerdam cruise, and were asked by officials to put on protective face masks at Vancouver International Airport as an American woman who was on the cruise with them has tested positive for the COVID-19 coronovirus, and both she and her husband have been hospitalized with pneumonia [2,3]. The Global News headline for the story read “COVID-19 fears spike after woman let off cruise ship in Cambodia tests positive“.  The story’s opening paragraph reads, “The feel-good story of how Cambodia allowed a cruise ship to dock after it was turned away elsewhere in Asia for fear of spreading the deadly virus that began in China has taken an unfortunate turn after a passenger released from the ship tested positive for the virus [3].”

A week ago, a 5th case of COVID-19 had been identified in British Columbia in a woman in her 30s who travelled to the Shanghai area of China. “She was not in Hubei province and was not in an area where travel was restricted,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s Chief Medical Health Officer. ”She came home from Shanghai through YVR (the Vancouver International Airport) and then travelled by private vehicle to her home in the interior,” said Henry. The woman was tested on February 11th, and the lab returned a positive result on Thursday February 13th [4]. Global News reported that they think that the woman’s symptoms started around her time of arrival. Henry said, ”We’re still working out the seating and looking at the flights“.  Global News also reported that “health officials are still working to contact everyone who sat within three rows of the woman to discuss what to do if they show symptoms”. Officials are not saying what flight the woman was on, or where she lives in the interior because “because they don’t want to unnecessarily alarm people“, Henry said [4].

It is also known that 5 million people left Wuhan before quarantine was set up in that city in preparation for the lunar New Year[5]. Where did they go? We know for sure that two people from Wuhan came to Vancouver during that time and that a woman in her 50s with whom they were staying contracted COVID-19 from them [6,7]. Since incubation period for the illness is believed to be up to 14 days and these individuals they were without symptoms while touring Vancouver sites, it is unknown how many individuals in the greater Vancouver area may have also been exposed to the coronavirus over the last few weeks by being in close contact with these three individuals. It is also unknown how many other people from the outbreak area may have come to Canada before the quarantine was in place. 

Some thoughts…

Medical officials are continuing to assure the public that the risks of getting COVID-19 are “low”, but “low” is a relative term.

Risk would certainly be “low” when compared to Wuhan where the coronavirus originated from (based on the sheer number of individuals infected there) and would also be “low” compared to those who were quarantined on the Diamond Princess off of the coast of Japan, but people in the Greater Vancouver area are very much on edge knowing that being within 2 meters (6.5 feet)  for any length of time of those who are contagious may put them at risk. Two meters is the distance between tables in  a restaurant, the distance between people in front and behind in a long line up at a checkout line, or at popular locations including the airport. Given that people can have no symptoms whatsoever and be contagious for 14 days has many people concerned.

In addition to a growing outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran, also of concern is the recent emergence of hundreds of cases of COVID-19 in Seoul, South Korea — as both of these countries have strong ties to local communities, and neither country is currently restricting travel.

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Update: February 23, 2020: Several media outlets [8,9] are reporting that the woman that tested positive for the new coronavirus and had recently flown from Iran, also flew from Montreal to Vancouver on Valentine’s Day, February 14th. The BC Provincial Health Authority (PHSA) advised Air Canada that it plans to contact all passengers who flew out of Montreal that day and who were seated within three rows of the woman so that they can monitor their health for a 14-day period and report any symptoms to a health professional [8.9].

Global News reported later this afternoon that the Fraser Health Authority sent a letter to all school districts in its region on Friday, which includes Burnaby, New Westminster, Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows and the Tri-Cities — warning them that contacts of the woman with coronavirus ”may have attended schools in the region and are currently isolated.”  Fraser Health’s medical health officer Ingrid Tyler wrote in the letter that ”these contacts were not showing any signs or symptoms of illness while attending school, and remain well” and the health authority has assured that “there is no public health risk at schools in the region” and “no evidence that novel coronavirus is circulating in the community” [10].

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  1. Globe and Mail, Andrea Woo, B.C. hit with sixth case of coronavirus after woman returns from Iran, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-bc-hit-with-sixth-case-of-coronavirus-after-woman-returns-from-iran/
  2. CBC News, Austin Grabish, As Canadians return home from Westerdam cruise, health officials urge them to self-isolate, February 16, 2020 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/westerdam-cruise-canadians-return-home-1.5466131
  3. Global News, Sopheng Cheang, Eileen Ng, Grant Peck (Associated Press), COVID-19 fears spike after woman let off cruise ship in Cambodia tests positive, February 17, 2020, https://globalnews.ca/news/6559821/cambodia-cruise-ship-coronavirus-positive/
  4. GlobalNews, Stuart Little, B.C. identifies 5th presumptive case of COVID-19, woman who travelled near Shanghai, https://globalnews.ca/news/6552744/british-columbia-covid-19-update/
  5. CTVNews, Erika Kinetz, Where did they go? Millions left Wuhan before quarantine. February 9, 2010, https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/where-did-they-go-millions-left-wuhan-before-quarantine-1
  6. CityNews 1130, Paul James and Kathryn Tindale, Health officials track coronavirus in Metro Vancouver, risk remains low, posted Feb 5, 2020 11:31 am PST, last Updated Feb 5, 2020 at 11:32 am PST,  https://www.citynews1130.com/2020/02/05/virus-expert-tracking-infected/
  7. National Post, Richard Warnica, Fifth suspected coronavirus case in Canada is B.C. woman who had ‘close contact’ with Wuhan visitors, Posted February 4, 2020 and 11:33 PM EST, https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/fifth-suspected-coronavirus-case-in-canada-is-b-c-woman-who-had-close-contact-with-wuhan-visitors
  8. Montreal Gazette, Susan Schwartz, February 23, 2020, Passenger from Iran on flight from Montreal to Vancouver tests positive for new coronavirus, https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/passenger-from-iran-on-flight-from-montreal-to-vancouver-tests-positive-for-new-coronavirus
  9. CBC, B.C.’s 6th presumptive COVID-19 case flew from Montreal to Vancouver on Feb. 14, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bc-coronavirus-flight-montreal-vancouver-1.5473283
  10. Global News, Sean Boynton, Passenger on Air Canada flight to Vancouver is not a new case of COVID-19: B.C. officials, Feb 23 2020 2:11 pm, updated 5:18 pm), https://globalnews.ca/news/6586274/covid19-air-canada-vancouver-montreal/