Coronavirus spread risk is now ‘very high’ — what does that mean for Canadians?

The World Health Organization raised its risk assessment for the new coronavirus to the highest level on Friday — but should that really change the way Canadians are reacting?

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital, cautioned against getting too caught up in words used by health officials.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Bogoch said, explaining that the new “very high” risk of spread doesn’t change the advice from officials.

COVID-19: WHO official says outbreak not at stage to declare pandemic

COVID-19: WHO official says outbreak not at stage to declare pandemic

Advice from both the WHO and Canadian officials has been clear and consistent, he said.

“I think they’ve been very explicit over the last few days, to the last week or so, that we should really be preparing for a greater number of cases, regardless of where we are on the planet.”

Story continues below advertisement

Bogoch said that countries that have experienced cases will likely experience more, and places that have so far been in the clear may also deal with the outbreak.

WHO raises global risk of coronavirus spread to ‘very high’

Over the last day, the total number of countries reporting cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, jumped to nearly 60, bringing the total number of global cases to more than 83,000.

So far, 14 cases have been confirmed in Canada, split between B.C. and Ontario. A 15th presumptive case has been discovered in Quebec. Canadians that were quarantined at a Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ont., after travelling from Wuhan, China, were released earlier this week.

WHO’s Dr. Mike Ryan echoed the same sentiment — a higher risk assessment doesn’t immediately warrant more or different action.

He explained during Friday’s press conference that raising the risk level doesn’t have any legal implications or obligate countries to take action. He said it serves as a warning for countries to be alert to cases appearing within their borders and to act swiftly to contain them.

When does an outbreak become a pandemic?

When does an outbreak become a pandemic?

“Raising the risk to very high is essentially reflecting what’s actually happening at a global level: more countries, some countries struggling with containment, and therefore heightening that level of alert,” Ryan said.

Story continues below advertisement

But what does all that mean for regular Canadians? Bogoch said they should look to Canadian health officials for practical tips, rather than focus on the big picture of spread and containment.

“There’s a bit of a window of time before we start to see more and more cases in Canada, and individuals can do things during that time that are helpful,” he said.

Canadian coronavirus cases linked to Iran rise, experts question country’s response

For example, Bogoch noted those with chronic illnesses, seniors and those with other underlying medication conditions should ensure they are in “optimal health.”

“That may be filling out a prescription or going to get checked up by your primary care provider or specialist,” he said. “Are you up to date on your vaccines?”

Bogoch also pointed to tips offered by federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, saying those should be the focus of Canadians concerned about the coronavirus.

Tips for travelling amid ongoing coronavirus concerns

Tips for travelling amid ongoing coronavirus concerns

This week, Hajdu said Canadians should consider stockpiling food and medication in their homes in case they or a loved one should fall ill with the virus.

“It’s really about, first of all, making sure that you do have enough supplies so if someone in your family becomes ill, if you yourself become ill, that you have what you need to survive for a week or so without going outside,” she said.

Story continues below advertisement

She also suggested people should do what they can to ease the burden on the health care system in the meantime by staying home if they’re sick, washing their hands and getting flu shots.

Hajdu also said Canadians should consider avoiding travel or at least make well-informed decisions by checking advisories.

“It’s important that people know that international travel may have exposed them to the novel coronavirus and they may not know,” she said.

— With files from Global News reporter Leslie Young and The Canadian Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.