A physician who said he developed “a nasty cold with a cough and runny nose” while on a flight from Hong Kong to Toronto is questioning whether there are adequate safeguards to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Canada.
Massey Beveridge, a retired general surgeon, said he was “waved” through Pearson International Airport even after reporting his symptoms to a border services agent.
“My nose is running like Niagara Falls, I’m coughing and feeling pretty miserable,” Beveridge told CBC News.
He says he explained his symptoms to the agent and that he was taken to a screened-off area with face masks and hand wash.
“The immigration officer came back a few minutes later and said, ‘Here’s a handout. You can call public health if you like’,” Beveridge added.
“I figured there’d be some kind of public health person coming to interview me.”
There are currently two confirmed coronavirus cases in Toronto, a husband and wife both in their 50s who recently travelled to Wuhan, China — the epicentre of the outbreak. A third case has also been confirmed in B.C.
Ontario public health officials have repeatedly stressed that the risk of coronavirus infection in Canada is low. Evidence suggests transmission of the virus from person to person requires close contact, like the kind between immediate family members who live together, said Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer, this week.
Further, lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak suggest many airport screening procedures are ineffective.
Beveridge was returning to Canada from Cambodia but changed planes in Hong Kong after flying from Phnom Penh.
He said he was anxious, even though he had not been anywhere near Wuhan. Cambodia has so far reported only one case of the coronavirus and it was travel-related.
Additionally, given the concerns over the coronavirus in China and other Southeast Asian countries, he figured he’d better do something on his return to make sure he didn’t spread whatever he had.
“Nobody even took my temperature. And you know if we’re really trying to keep this out of Canada, it seems that that was not a very thorough screening process,” Beveridge said.
The outbreak of the new coronavirus began last month in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people. The World Health Organization (WHO) says it has killed at least 213 people, all in China. More than 9,600 people globally have been infected, the vast majority in China, though cases have been confirmed in 19 other countries.
Yesterday, WHO declared the emerging situation a public health emergency of international concern.
CBC News reached out to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), the body that oversees Pearson, for comment. A spokesperson said the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is responsible for determining the response to coronavirus.
Canada began implementing some enhanced screening measures for passengers on flights from China to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Jan. 22. They include signs urging travellers to report flu-like symptoms, additional health-realted questions at kiosks and pamphlets with information about what people should do if their condition worsens.
Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, said it’s likely Beveridge was not screened because he was in Hong Kong only briefly and hadn’t been to mainland China.
“For the coronavirus, the enhanced border measures, on top of what we have as a foundation, is essentially providing the information on the screen and the kiosk questions and the referral to Canadian border service agents,” Tam told CBC News.
Tam said anyone who is sick should tell a border service agent.
Call for enhanced screening at all Canadian airports
Frank Scarpitti, the mayor of Markham, 30 kilometres northeast of Toronto, says while he has great confidence in public health officials at the federal, provincial and local levels, he continues to press for the federal government to put in more enhanced screening at all Canadian airports.
“I think it would just give Canadians a greater sense of confidence that that additional step is being taken,” Scarpitti told CBC News.
“It’s not going to catch everyone but it’s just another layer of screening, rather than just voluntary screening, and indicating where someone may have travelled.”
Scarpitti also pointed to measures introduced at other major airports in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles that involve passengers from China being screened for symptoms.
“You just have to look south of the border, the U.S. airports instituted that,” he said.
“Because of the number of airports that they have, they’re actually redirecting passengers to the airports that have that technology,” Scarpitti said.
Global Affairs Canada said there are 196 Canadians currently seeking consular help to leave China, and Canada has secured a charter aircraft to bring home Canadians stranded in the affected region.