There have yet to be any confirmed Ontario cases of a new respiratory illness that has infected hundreds of people in China but Health Minister Christine Elliott says that it is “not unlikely” that the virus will make its way to the province eventually.

Elliott made the comment to reporters on Wednesday afternoon as she provided an update on Ontario’s response to the new coronavirus that was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last month and has since spread to a number of other countries.

She said that while the risk posed by the virus to Ontarians “remains low,” the province is “actively monitoring” its spread and “is ready to respond.”

As part of those efforts, the government has added the virus as a designated disease reportable under Ontario's public health legislation.

That means that health professionals will be required to report any suspected or confirmed cases of the virus to their local medical officer of health.

Elliott said that health providers will also ensure that anyone being tested for the virus is “placed in isolation” to prevent its transmission. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals coming into contact with those people will also be required to wear protective equipment.

“It is not unlikely that we will receive cases but I think it is important for everyone to know that we have the necessary processes, procedures and safeguards in place to make sure we protect all the people of Ontario," she said.

Small number of people tested in Ontario

Health officials with the province revealed on Wednesday afternoon that a small number of people who had travelled to Wuhan and exhibited symptoms upon their return were tested for the virus after self-reporting.

So far none of those people have tested positive, though.

Officials say that the virus can be tested for through a throat and nasal swab with results taking up to 24 hours.

“We have put all of our systems in place. We are not taking anything for granted because we know this is something that can grow very quickly,” Elliott said. “So we need to put our efforts, as we are, into detection of any possible cases and then containment.”

Comparisons to SARS outbreak

Chinese authorities have confirmed at least 444 cases of the virus, including 17 fatalities.

Its rapid spread has led to some comparisons with the 2003 SARS outbreak that ultimately killed more than 800 people worldwide and dozens in Toronto but Elliott said that there is a “very significant difference” between the circumstances that existed then and the ones that exist now.

“First of all I would say that China has been very forthcoming in reporting this issue to international agencies in a timely manner so that we have the ability to deal with it more quickly. Secondly we have had the creation of Public Health Ontario as well as a whole series of protocols and systems in place to make sure there is communication among the relevant agencies and that the hospitals are prepared,” she said. “I can also tell you that there are many people involved in dealing with this situation that were around and dealing with SARS and they have indicated that there have been significant improvements every step along the way.”

Additional precautions at airports

The World Health Organization has convened a group of experts to advise it on whether the spread of the virus should be declared a global emergency, though no decision has been made yet.

In the meantime, a number of precautions have been taken by the Public Health Agency of Canada, including the use of messaging on arrival screens at airports in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver reminding travellers to inform a border services officer if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms.

An additional health screening question has also been added to the electronic customs kiosks at those airports.

“When we are talking about SARS and we are talking about this new virus we are talking about Coronaviruses, so these are viruses from the same family and there are some common features but this is a new novel Coronavirus and we are still learning a lot about it and how it transmits,” Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa told CP24 on Wednesday. “We are talking about a virus that we have just found, literally not even a month ago, so we are very much in the early stage of the learning curve here.”

All of the initial cases of the mysterious virus were traced to a seafood market in Wuhan, though Chinese officials confirmed earlier this week that the virus can be transmitted between humans.