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Toronto Star

‘Tip of the iceberg’: With lessons of SARS in mind, experts watching new virus closely

Jan 18, 2020 9:33:24 PM

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Experts are concerned the world could see another global outbreak of a new respiratory illness related to SARS — but there are still too many unknown factors to know how serious it is just yet.

As the situation ufolds, the lessons learned from dealing with SARS are top of mind for some.

The new strain of a virus called coronavirus has killed two people in China since New Year’s Eve, with more than 40 infections reported there. Infected travellers have also been confirmed in both Thailand and Japan. The Public Health Agency of Canada has implemented enhanced screening measures at airports in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Dr. Kamran Khan is an infectious disease physician at St. Micheal’s Hospital and a University of Toronto researcher who studied airport screenings during the SARS and Ebola outbreaks. He is concerned this virus, said to have originated at a fish market in Wuhan, China, has evolved the capability to spread from person to person and could soon reach outside of Asia.

Khan said the fact that the fish market in Wuhan closed on Jan. 1, but there have since been more reported infections, even in the past 48 hours, is an indication that people are getting infected from person-to-person transmission.

It’s unknown how efficient the disease is in spreading from person to person, or how severe and quickly the symptoms develop.

“What we don’t necessarily see are the people who might have the same illness but it’s a much milder form,” Khan said.

“And maybe they don’t wind up going to the hospital. ... Whenever there's a new disease that emerges, we often (at first) just see the tip of the iceberg.”

There are several factors that could make this new coronavirus strain prone to spreading widely. So far, it doesn’t seem as deadly as SARS, meaning infected people are more likely to travel, move around and spread the disease than if they were bed ridden.

“It actually is a little bit early to tell because there’s still many unknowns about this virus. But what I will say is when we look back at SARS we saw something that was very, very deadly,” Khan said, noting that disease had a roughly 10 per cent fatality rate.

“It does not seem to have the same level of severity of illness as we saw during SARS … keep in mind that viruses often are continuously evolving and shifting and changing, and so it is also possible that a virus could start to mutate and evolve in a way that makes it either spread more easily or become more virulent, more dangerous and deadly to people,” he added.

With Chinese Lunar New Year approaching next weekend, there is even greater chance of the disease leaving the Asian region and spreading globally, Khan noted, which is why the next two weeks will be important to watch.

There is also the fact the incubation period for this virus, or the window of time before an infected person notices symptoms, can be up to two weeks. It puts airports and border agencies in a tricky situation because they’re unlikely to detect the virus by individual inspections — people are more likely to develop the illness after they’ve already left the airport.

As of now, Canada has opted to educate travellers on what symptoms to look out for, as the onus is on individuals to report if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms as soon as possible.

Symptoms include respiratory problems, flu-like symptoms including fever, cough, breathing difficulties, pneumonia and kidney failure.

Khan said there are takeaways from his experience researching the SARS outbreak that he could also apply to this new situation.

For one, front-line health-care workers need to be better informed and prepared to recognize signs of infectious disease.

“Our front-line health-care workers … they are the difference between one case in a traveller and an outbreak that could cripple an entire city,” Khan said.

He added that information about infection and deadly diseases needs to be disseminated much more quickly to prevent deadly outbreaks.

Finally, he worries more viruses will spread from animals to humans due to the “industrialization of agriculture and the disruption of wildlife ecosystems.”

“It's really something for us to think carefully about is that our health, our well being, our security … it's very much intertwined with the health and well being of other living systems in the world.”

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter covering inner-city issues, affordable housing and reconciliation for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh

Police report 250 collisions as snowstorm hits Toronto

Jan 18, 2020 8:51:23 PM

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A snowstorm on Saturday caused a spike in road collisions, transit delays and flight cancellations as the city deployed 1,500 workers to clean up the mess overnight.

Environment Canada said Toronto could see close to 15 centimetres in total. The snow was expected to taper off to wet flurries or light showers Saturday evening, as the temperature hovered above freezing.

The city had been preparing for the snowfall for days before it hit, said spokesperson Eric Holmes.

“We’ve got about 1,500 staff who have been on call for every storm like this,” said Holmes.

Salt trucks were on the road at 7 a.m., while plows were dispatched once 2.5 centimetres of snow accumulated on major expressways and five centimetres on major roads. Neighbourhood streets were to follow, Holmes said.

Clearing Toronto’s 9,500 streets is typically a 16-hour operation and residents are advised to wait before calling the city, he said.

“If you haven’t seen a plow on your neighbourhood street after this kind of storm by Sunday afternoon then you can call 311, but our crews are going to be out all night working,” he said.

Holmes urged Torontonians to stay off the roads Saturday night.

Police had responded to 40 active collisions by 4 p.m., and a total of 250 collisions were reported in 24 hours as of 7 p.m., according to Sgt. Kerry Schmidt of the Ontario Provincial Police.

“As quickly as we can clear them, new crashes are happening. Cars are spinning out of control, going sideways, getting stuck. I saw some vehicles having struggles even merging onto the highway,” Schmidt said in a video posted to his Twitter.

Schmidt advised drivers to give plows “lots of space” to do their job and make sure full vehicle lighting systems were on because of reduced visibility.

“The collisions that we have been dealing with right now have all been relatively minor in nature,” Schmidt said. “Mostly slow-speed collisions, but they are preventable and drivers are still going likely a little too fast.”

The weather also affected TTC service. “We have a lot of vehicles on the road today and some of them have been caught in snow and slippery roads,” said spokesperson Stuart Green.

Only one TTC vehicle had been involved in a collision and all routes remained in operation, Green said.

“With the amount of snow we’ve seen today, we’ve seen a number of our buses get stuck on hills and steep inclines. We’ve had a couple of streetcar diversions, but they were related to on-street accidents as opposed to the weather per se,” Green said.

One TTC bus spun out and was “completely sideways,” blocking lanes in the area of Kingston and Bellamy roads, Toronto police tweeted.

Another TTC bus was stuck on CN train tracks near Progress Avenue and Kennedy Road, police said. All trains were stopped until the bus was removed.

Toronto Pearson Airport said travellers were warned in advance of possible cancellations and delays. Roughly a fifth of Pearson flights were cancelled as of 6 p.m., according to the airport’s website.

“The nice thing about this storm is that we’ve known about it for a few days so we have been able to plan and notify passengers in advance,” said Beverly MacDonald, a spokesperson for the airport.

Cancellations were not expected to increase significantly overnight, but MacDonald said passengers should expect longer waits when boarding and disembarking, as crews worked to clear snow and ice.

Several city events were affected by the flight interruptions. The Toronto Blue Jays tweeted that catcher Danny Jansen was unable to attend the first day of the team’s Winter Fest. Comedian John Mulaney was also forced to cancel a show Saturday night at Meridian Hall. It was rescheduled for Feb. 28.

Margaryta Ignatenko is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star's radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @MargarytaIgnat1

‘Value of Alberta’ event draws big-name conservatives — as independence talk looms large

Jan 18, 2020 9:04:23 PM

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CALGARY — Mike Heier says he’s been a “soft” separatist for 25 years.

And in his mind, he’s been betrayed by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

“That’s all he did when he took separation off the table,” the 60-year-old business director said Saturday.

“The moral fabric required to keep this country together is gone.”

Heier was one of more than 700 people who gathered at the Calgary Telus Convention Centre this weekend to attend the Value of Alberta event, which was billed by organizers as “the largest ever and most comprehensive conference dealing with issues related to Alberta’s place in Confederation."

While not explicitly a pro-separation event, the conference was, in many ways, a more sober look at western alienation and discussion of what one speaker called “the unthinkable.”

Last fall, on the heels of the federal election and rising frustration in Alberta with its outcome, hundreds packed into Edmonton’s Boot Scootin’ Boogie Dancehall for a “Wexit” rally.

But on Saturday in Calgary, there were more business suits than “Wexit” ball caps — and the audience included high-profile speakers from Alberta and beyond.

The views were varied. Many said they simply wanted more autonomy for the West within the country. Some said they wanted a slow progression toward independence, and others yet were no-nonsense separatists.

A few elected United Conservative Party MLAs were in attendance, including Tany Yao, who represents Fort McMurray—Wood Buffalo.

He also sits on the Kenney government’s Fair Deal Panel and has been travelling around the province listening to Albertans.

“We’re close, quite honestly,” he said when asked about Alberta separating from Canada.

“When you see a federal government push through bills that specifically target our products from our province and ignore the products that come in from the Middle East, from Venezuela, even from the United States — that’s really discouraging.”

Specific topics at the conference included climate policy enacted by the federal government, the energy industry, Indigenous issues and what the downturn in Alberta’s energy-dependent economy has meant for working people.

Former media mogul Conrad Black was the keynote speaker, and held a book signing afterwards.

While Black didn’t touch directly on Alberta independence, he expressed his support for the province’s energy sector.

“Alberta is not just suffering from bad luck because it happens to produce something that is environmentally unsound,” Black said.

“It is suffering from extreme mis-government because the persecution of the energy industry is unjustified on any grounds.”

Black also questioned how united scientists are on the question of climate change causing catastrophe in the near future,

(Nearly 100 per cent of the climate science community across the world has agreed that action needs to be taken on human accelerated climate change in order to curb extreme weather events in the future and protect biodiversity.)

Ted Morton, a former Alberta cabinet minister and advocate for more provincial autonomy, and Joe Oliver, once a federal minister under Stephen Harper, delivered remarks as well.

Oliver also questioned the scientific consensus, while stressing that he wasn’t a “climate change denier.” He took issue with “alarmist concerns” over climate change.

While Oliver said that Alberta should try and get a fair shake, he said he doesn’t want Alberta to separate.

“My Canada includes Alberta,” he said.

But the animosity that has underscored talk about western separation — dubbed various things over the years, from Wexit to Albexit and even “Saskalbatoba” — was evident at Saturday’s event.

As speakers took the stage and stood between the Canada and Alberta flags, a slide show appeared in the background showing an “Alberta Transfer Meter” counting upward second by second.

Jack Mintz, an economist with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, said estimates go as high as $611 billion (in 2017 dollars) that Alberta has contributed through taxes into federal coffers over the past 50 years.

A November poll from Ipsos put Alberta’s separatist sentiment at 33 per cent and Saskatchewan’s at 27 per cent.

One question often looms over a potential separation: What about treaty rights?

“Wexit is a non-starter for First Nations people,” said Treaty 6 Grand Chief Billy Morin, who also spoke at the conference. There are significant issues with Ottawa, but leaving the country isn’t the answer, he told the room.

“You would have Alberta with a bunch of holes.”

Wexit gained national notoriety in the wake of last year’s federal election that saw the Liberals returned to power with a minority government despite being shut out of Alberta entirely.

Since then, Wexit has been granted party status in Canada, making it eligible for the next election.

But Wexit was derided by some at the conference. Longtime conservative activist Judy Johnson said the movement is “painting us so badly.”

“Albertans are really not like that,” she said. “I am totally onside with almost everything Jason Kenney is doing.

“We’ll have to see how he does, because if he’s not prepared to do some of these things then, yes, I’m afraid another party is going to rise in Alberta.”

Johnson said she wasn’t fully committed to Alberta independence, but pegged the sentiment in the room and the province’s separatist feelings at “between three and five on a scale of 10, of like, an earthquake.”

Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based reporter covering provincial affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt

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