Airlift departs Wuhan to repatriate Canadians from China’s coronavirus outbreak zone

A chartered aircraft has departed Wuhan, China to bring home Canadians stuck in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, Global Affairs Canada has confirmed.

After the aircraft departed, a government official confirmed there are 176 passengers on board, including 34 minors.

There were 211 people on the initial manifest for today’s flight, which was delayed by one day due to bad weather in Vietnam, where the aircraft was pre-positioning to go on to Wuhan. Of those, 194 had indicated they intended to be the airport for the flight.

A government official said it’s not clear why some people decided in the end not to take the flight, suggesting some could have opted to remain with family in China or couldn’t make their way to the airport.

During a news conference Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said the Canadian flight is expected to arrive in Trenton, Ont. in the early hours Friday morning after a stopover in Vancouver.

“That was truly a whole of government effort and while we are not there yet, I would like to recognize the hard work of the incredible public servants who made this complex operation happen to help Canadians in need,” he said.

He said a small number of people did not show up for the flight because they changed their minds at the last minute. Between this flight and spots set aside for Canadians on a subsequent American flight, two-thirds of the Canadians who want to come home will be repatriated.

A second chartered flight carrying the remaining Canadians will leave Wuhan on Monday, Champagne said.

Before boarding the aircraft, passengers must undergo multiple layers of screening by Chinese and Canadian authorities. Anyone who shows symptoms of illness will not be permitted to board.

National defence and public health officials will be on board and will take steps to isolate anyone who becomes ill during the flight.

About 50 Canadians who couldn’t find seats on the charter flight will be allowed to board an American aircraft in Wuhan that is scheduled to leave soon after the Canadian charter departs, Champagne said.

Those passengers will land in Vancouver and a government-chartered plane will take them to the Canadian Forces base in Trenton, Ont.

The returning passengers from both flights will be under quarantine for 14 days at the base.

Canadians repatriated from Wuhan, China will be quarantined at CFB Trenton east of Toronto. (The Canadian Press)

Hajdu said returning passengers will be assessed daily by medical professionals.

“The national microbiology mobile lab will be on site to test any symptomatic travellers and there will be general help provided to all travellers that includes clothing, food, diapers and games,” she said.

Noting that it has been a “scary” and “very stressful” time for the evacuees, Hajdu said emotional and mental health support services also will be available.

Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer, said he is skeptical about the practical effect of a quarantine, which he calls an “ancient” disease control strategy.

“It’s a concept that almost has no place in modern public health because it just doesn’t work,” he told CBC News Network.

Short of a vaccine, which could take up to a year to develop for the novel coronavirus, case identification and case isolation are the best ways to interrupt the virus, he said, adding that the outcome will depend largely on the strength of the virus.

Advice for Canadians in China

The federal government is advising all Canadians in China to leave the country by commercial means unless it’s essential for them to be there. Several airlines have suspended or limited their flights to China.

Global Affairs heightened its travel advisories for China after the outbreak, warning against all travel to Hubei province and against all non-essential travel to other parts of China.

GAC’s website has been updated and now states that, for safety and security reasons, Canadians should “consider leaving China” if their “presence isn’t essential.”

Champagne repeated that advice again Thursday. “It’s just common sense,” he said.

There are now more than 28,000 reported cases of the novel coronavirus around the world; most of the cases are in China. About 565 deaths have been reported.

In Canada, there have been five cases — three in Ontario and two in British Columbia — and public health officials say the risk to Canadians remains low.


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