The risk of contracting COVID-19 in an eastern Ontario city where Canadian cruise ship evacuees have just arrived is “extremely low,” according to the area’s chief medical officer who sought to reassure concerned residents.
Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, a medical officer of health with the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, made the comments during a scrum with reporters in Cornwall, Ont., located approximately 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, where the evacuees arrived Friday morning.
“We do believe that the risk of coronavirus 2019, the COVID virus, was low, extremely low in Canada, and the fact that these individuals are here does not increase that risk,” he stressed.
The Diamond Princess cruise ship carrying approximately 3,700 people became the site of the largest outbreak outside of China with more than 600 confirmed cases of the virus. Passengers were under quarantine on the vessel in Yokohama, Japan since early February.
Of the 256 Canadian passengers on board, 48 tested positive for COVID-19 and were taken to local hospitals in Japan for further treatment.
The 129 Canadian passengers evacuated by the government were transported by bus to Cornwall’s NAV Centre, a large hotel and conference centre, for a second 14-day quarantine where they will be monitored for signs they have contracted COVID-19.
A group of 79 Canadian passengers who didn’t test positive for the virus chose not to take the chartered flight home for individual reasons, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne. He said those passengers indicated to Global Affairs Canada they would not be boarding the plane back to Canada.
CTV News’ Todd Battis reported there were some concerns in the community about the sudden arrival of evacuees from Japan. The plan to quarantine passengers in Cornwall surprised even the mayor of the city, Bernadette Clement, who said residents were worried they weren’t being given enough information about who would be arriving and how long they would stay.
Roumeliotis acknowledged there were fears about the virus in the city, but he said authorities were taking all of the necessary precautions to prevent any further spread.
“I’m not concerned at all that there will be any danger or risk to other guests at the NAV Centre or the area around us,” he said.
QUARANTINE DEJA VU
As more information is shared with the community, however, some of those concerns may be easing.
“I know that some people aren’t happy about it. I personally am fine…If it was my family on that ship I’d want them home,” said Kristan St. Jean, a nurse in Cornwall.
“We’ve been hearing a lot and everyone is always scared of the unknown. If you read up on it, they’re taking all the precautions they can.”
Passenger Kate Bedding said it was initially difficult to understand why another 14-day quarantine was necessary, but as more information became available, including concerns that the initial quarantine was flawed, it made more sense.
“It’s frustrating, but understandable,” she told CTV News Channel on Friday.
Diane and Allan Chow, who were also among the passengers arriving in Cornwall, said the quarantine period on the ship was extremely stressful.
“The captain of the ship would be announcing on a daily basis how many people are infected and moved to the hospital. The number jumped so quickly,” Diane Chow told CTV News Toronto on Friday. “That number really, really scared us.”
Upon landing at CFB Trenton, passenger Lolita Wiesner said in a Facebook post that medics came aboard the plane to check their temperatures and serve food. She said border officials came on next and returned their passports, which they had collected from them when they left the cruise ship.
A few hours later, the repatriated passengers boarded coach buses for a nearly three-hour drive east to the NAV Centre.
Bedding said she was happy to be back in Canada after a “long journey.” The Port Dover, Ont. woman has already settled in to her room in Cornwall to begin her two-week quarantine.
“I think every Canadian who travels, when they come back home, it’s a wonderful feeling and this one is particularly wonderful,” she said.
Bedding said they were spaced out on the plane and she was able to sleep because she had three seats to herself.
“The medics did check on us a couple of times to make sure we felt alright. Took our temperatures, made sure we were still in the good range,” she said.
When they arrived at the base in Trenton, Bedding said the passengers erupted in loud applause. They were then greeted by Red Cross workers, border officials, and a large sign with the words “Welcome home” on it.
Cornwall’s mayor said the passengers range in age from 20 to 80 with the majority being over the age of 60.
PASSENGER NOT WORRIED
Earlier this week, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said there’s a possibility that some evacuees who continue to test negative for the virus and don’t develop any symptoms will be allowed to leave the quarantine before two weeks have passed. However, she said that will be determined on a case-by-case basis by the chief public health officer of Canada.
Roumeliotis, however, said that it was his understanding that only some medical and flight personnel who travelled with the evacuees on the flight would be eligible to leave the quarantine earlier than 14 days.
“As far as I’m concerned, people who were on the cruise will have to stay here for 14 days,” he told reporters.
Bedding believed they may be allowed time outside, but noted that many of the cruise travellers do not have winter clothes on hand.
“If it’s mild, I’ll go out, but if it’s brutal, I’ll stay inside,” she said.
As for whether she’s concerned about contracting the virus during her stay in Cornwall, Bedding said not at all.
“I have been healthy ever since the start of this trip and I still feel great and I’m really not worried about having the virus or catching the virus here,” she said.
On Friday afternoon, Champagne told a press conference that the individuals who tested positive for the virus and had to remain behind in Japan were receiving “tailored consular service” and that health officials and Red Cross workers had been deployed to Japan to help them.
As for their eventual repatriation, the minister said the cruise line, Holland America, is responsible for their return home, but the Canadian government would help to facilitate those arrangements.
Canadian health officials said anyone who contracted the virus or who exhibited symptoms of the illness would not be allowed on the chartered flight home.
Back in Cornwall, Roumeliotis explained that NAV Centre staff would not be working in the building where the quarantined individuals are being held and said that only Public Health Agency of Canada staff, military members, and Red Cross volunteers would be in contact with them.
When asked why the government chose Cornwall as a location to house cruise ship passengers, Roumeliotis said it was because CFB Trenton was full and because the NAV Centre has accommodated large groups of other evacuees in the past.
With files from Solarina Ho and Katherine DeClerq