Alberta has reported five new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number in the province to 19, health officials say.
All 19 cases are travel-related, the province's chief medical officer said Wednesday, hours after the World Health Organization officially listed the global outbreak of the illness as a pandemic.
"This is an important designation and one that reflects the seriousness of this virus," Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in her latest update. "COVID-19 is not like other threats we have seen in the past decades. It is more severe than seasonal influenza or the H1 pandemic of 2009, and it is more contagious than viruses like SARS."
Hinshaw said one of the new cases involved an Edmonton man in his 30s who returned from international travel and began experiencing symptoms.
The man was treated on March 6 and 7 at the Misericordia Hospital for an unrelated condition, she said, before he tested positive for COVID-19 on March 9. He is now self-isolating. There is no risk to any patients or staff at the hospital at this time.
"I want to be clear that there is no need for anyone else who may have attended the Misericordia or any other hospital sites to be concerned or take additional action," Hinshaw said. "Anyone considered to be at risk is being directly contacted by Alberta Health Services. If you are not contacted by AHS you are not at risk at this time."
The other new cases in the province involved a man in his 20s and two women in their 30s from the Calgary zone, and a woman in her 30s from the central Alberta zone.
The five new cases involved people who returned after travelling to Iran, Egypt, Spain, Mexico and the United States.
Though all 19 cases reported in Alberta so far involved people who travelled recently outside the country, Hinshaw said the province can expect to see some cases spread within the province.
The province's testing capacity has increased in recent days, Hinshaw said. By Wednesday, the province had conducted 2,619 tests, with close to 1,000 of those performed on Tuesday alone.
"The lab is doing tremendous work," Hinshaw said. "The lab is continually making adjustments to make things more efficient."
Tom McMillan, an Alberta Health spokesperson, said Wednesday that the province would also be expanding its testing to include some patients who had been previously tested for influenza.
"We are conducting sample testing of Alberta's influenza network starting today," McMillan said in an email. "These are samples taken from individuals who were tested previously for influenza or other non-COVID illnesses."
Travel advisory widens
With the global situation changing rapidly, she said, all travellers who have returned from Italy in the last two weeks are now being asked to self-isolate for 14 days, Hinshaw said.
All travellers returning to Alberta from anywhere outside Canada should consider limiting attendance at any large public gathering, Hinshaw said.
"We are also recommending at this time that anyone over the age of 65 and those with chronic health conditions not travel outside of Canada, as the global risk is increasing rapidly and it is difficult to predict which travel destinations may put people at risk.
"Even Albertans who are not in these risk groups should think carefully about their travel plans and the possibility they may be exposed to the virus while travelling."
The risks posed by mass gatherings are being monitored by a special advisory committee made up of public health officials across the country, Hinshaw said.
"At the moment there is no evidence of community spread in the province," she said. "All of our cases have been travel related. So again, at the moment our measures are adequate to protect Albertans and we're making very serious assessments to determine when that might change."
All 14 of the cases confirmed in Alberta so far have been travel-related, Hinshaw said, which means health officials are not seeing evidence of the illnesses spreading within the province.
On Wednesday, as WHO officials declared a global pandemic, the number of people infected across the world topped 120,000 and the number of deaths exceeded 4,300.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said the word pandemic is not one health officials use lightly.
As of Tuesday, Canada had recorded more than 90 cases, with one death of an elderly man in B.C. In Italy, the caseload has topped 10,000, with more than 600 deaths. The United States now has more than 1,000 cases, with pockets of outbreaks on both sides of the country.