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Concerns raised that Markham at 'heightened risk' of Wuhan coronavirus

Concern in Markham spreading fast, many call for screening, public education
Jan. 30, 2020
Heidi Riedner

Concern in Markham is spreading as fast as many fear the Wuhan novel coronavirus could, and prompting many to look for extra precautions to be put in place by public agencies.

The illness was first reported in Wuhan, China in late December. As of Jan. 28, it had infected more than 4,600 people and led to at least 106 deaths in China.

Despite its rapid spread, the virus has not been declared an international public health emergency by the World Health Organization.

That, however, hasn’t stopped many in Markham, including its mayor, from calling for ramped-up screening and public education measures.

Mayor Frank Scarpitti released a statement Jan. 26 calling on the federal government to implement additional detection measures at Canadian airports, referring to them as “less stringent” than at other major airports in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“With a first presumptive confirmed case of the novel coronavirus now in the Toronto area, there is heightened concern and anxiety in the community. These screening measures as an ounce of prevention would provide greater public confidence that more is being done to reduce risk and exposure to the virus.”

Amid news of a second “presumptive” case in Toronto, as well as an acknowledgement from Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam at a news conference Sunday that more cases are likely of a virus that is "evolving," Markham parent Marcus Kolga was one of many looking for answers from local school boards.

With a high percentage of residents with close ties to China, and who may have travelled to the country for recent New Year's celebrations, Kolga asked trustees if any plans were in place to not only screen students for possible risk, but also address a potential outbreak.

“My two sons are students at Pierre Elliott Trudeau High School, where there could be a heightened risk,” he said.

Nearly half the population of York Region’s largest city identifies as ethnically Chinese, according to statistics from the 2016 census. Of Markham’s population of 328,965 in 2016, 152,090 identified as Chinese, which makes up 46 per cent of Markham’s total.

As of Tuesday, Kolga hadn’t heard back from the board, but he said he hopes they are working on a strategy.

“As a parent, my greatest fear is that students whose families have travelled to cities affected by the virus may unknowingly put others at risk of exposure to it. The board would be wise to notify families of their plans to address any potential outbreak, to allay any concerns parents may have. Both Toronto and Markham are large, cosmopolitan cities, whose citizens travel all over the world. As such, all levels of government should be prepared for a potential outbreak, including our school boards.”

While Markham private school Somerset Academy sent a letter home to parents this weekend saying that families who have travelled to Asia should stay home for a minimum of 15 days as a precautionary measure, York’s public and separate school boards have stopped short of any such ‘self-isolation’ directive.

York Region District School Board spokesperson Licinio Miguelo echoed the sentiments of the Catholic board when he told York Region News it is following the lead of York Region Public Health and, “at this time, they have not advised schools to take additional action beyond what we normally do during this flu season.”

Public Health maintains the risk to York Region residents is low. It added it is working closely with Ontario’s Ministry of Health, as well as area hospitals and community health care workers, to prevent or control further transmission.

Despite that, Markham parent and community advocate Shanta Sundarason said many people share the same “precautionary mindset.”

“Many feel heightened levels of concern,” said Sundarason, adding that it is most likely increased by parallels to the 2002-03 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak that originated in China and infected more than 8,000 people, killing 800 people worldwide.

Unlike SARS, however, which couldn't be spread during incubation, China’s health minister Ma Xiaowei told reporters in Beijing on Sunday that an infected person can spread the coronavirus to others before experiencing symptoms.

"I lived through SARS and it was hell," said Sundarason, who ran a hospital in Singapore during the outbreak.

"The same type of thing may be developing now; the problem is, we just don't know enough at this time. It seems like Canada is prepared to deal with the emerging virus, but we need to be taking every precaution at this point."

While Scarpitti acknowledged the risk remains low at this time, he said an enhanced public education campaign in various languages across media and social media channels would help “calm concerns.”

You can go to to get daily updates on the current status of cases in the province.