Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Dr. Jerome Leis and Dr. Lynfa Stroud are pictured at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on Thursday, January 21, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

‘It wasn’t called COVID at the time:’ One year since Canada’s first COVID-19 case

The 56-year-old man was admitted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

The patient, when he came into the hospital ER with what seemed to be mild pneumonia, wasn’t that sick and might otherwise have been sent home.

Except the man had just returned from China, where a new viral disease was spreading like a brush fire. His chest X-rays were also unusual.

“We’d never seen a case like this before,” says Dr. Jerome Leis. “I’d never seen an X-ray quite like that one.”

It was the evening of Jan. 23, 2020, when the team at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre decided to admit the 56-year-old patient. That same day, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, told the country:

“The risk of an outbreak in Canada remains low,” Tam said in a refrain she and other officials would repeat for weeks on end.

Less than two days after admission to Sunnybrook, the man would become “Patient Zero” — the first COVID-19 case in Canada.

For several weeks, Leis, the hospital’s medical director of infection prevention and control, had been anticipating just such a moment. He had known since the end of December about the outbreak in Wuhan, China, and he’d been following Chinese authorities as they published information about the new pathogen and its effects.

Drawing on lessons learned from the SARS epidemic years earlier, Sunnybrook’s screening staff were already asking new specific questions of incoming patients. Protocols were sharpened. Just that morning, in fact, internal-medicine residents and faculty had done a refresher around protective gear.

“We were extremely suspicious that this was the novel coronavirus that had been described,” Leis says. “It does feel like a lifetime ago and yet it does just seem like yesterday.”

Dr. Lynfa Stroud, on-call general internist and division head of general internal medicine at Sunnybrook, was notified the new patient needed to be admitted.

“We didn’t know what exactly we were dealing with,” Stroud says. “We had early reports of presentations and how people evolved. We were a bit nervous but we felt very well prepared.”

The following day, as China was locking down Hubei province, Dr. Peter Donnelly, then head of Public Health Ontario, was asked about lockdowns in Canada. “Absolutely not,” he declared: “If a case comes here, and it is probably likely that we will have a case here, it will still be business as normal.”

Confirmation of the clinicians’ suspicions at Sunnybrook would come from the agency’s laboratory, which had been working furiously to develop and validate a suitable test for the novel coronavirus based on information from China. The agency’s lab had been testing samples for two weeks when the Sunnybrook call came in.

“They sent a sample to us in a cab,” says Dr. Vanessa Allen, chief of microbiology and laboratory science at Public Health Ontario.

It would be the start of a round-the-clock effort to test and retest the new samples.

“The last thing you need is a false signal or some kind of misunderstanding,” says Allen, who had been a resident during the SARS outbreak.

By about midday of Saturday, Jan. 25, the lab was sure it had identified the new organism that would soon take over the world and become a household name.

“It wasn’t called COVID at the time,” Allen says of the disease.

Over at Sunnybrook, Leis received the confirmation without much surprise.

“It was consistent with what we were seeing and what we suspected,” he says. “I was actually happy that the lab was able to confirm it.”

Within hours, public health authorities would let the country know that Canada had its first case of the “Wuhan novel coronavirus,” although further confirmation from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg was pending.

“I want Ontarians to know that the province is prepared to actively identify, prevent and control the spread of this serious infectious disease in Ontario,” Health Minister Christine Elliott declared as the province announced a new “dedicated web page” for latest information.

The wife of “Patient Zero” would also soon be confirmed as COVID-19 positive but was able to self-isolate at home.

“This (man) was one of the first cases to report on the more milder spectrum of disease, which was not something we were aware of,” Leis says. “It helped to teach us about the larger spectrum in disease severity that we see with COVID-19, which is very different from SARS.”

Looking back now at their roles in a small piece of Canadian pandemic history, those involved talk about how much we didn’t know about a virus that has since infected three-quarters of a million people in Canada, killing more than 18,800 of them.

“The initial detection, in some ways, was the easy part,” Allen says. “This virus and the implications are extremely humbling, and just the prolonged nature and impact of this was certainly not on my radar in January of last year.”

Yet treating “Patient Zero” and his wife afforded valuable lessons about what was then a poorly understood disease. For one thing, it became apparent that most of those afflicted don’t need hospital admission — hugely important given the massive number of infections and resulting stresses on critical-care systems.

“To be honest: We would have sent this patient home from the emergency room,” Stroud says. “We admitted him because, at that time, it wasn’t known very well what the course of illness was.”

Sunnybrook alone has now assessed more than 4,000 COVID-19 patients. To survive the onslaught, the hospital developed a program in which patients are screened and, if possible, sent to self-isolate under remote medical supervision.

Both “Patient Zero” and his wife recovered. Their cases would mark Canada’s first minor health-care skirmish of what was to become an all-out global defensive war against COVID-19. It also marked the beginning of relentless work hours for those on the front lines of health care.

For health-care workers, it’s been a long year since those first energized, if anxious, days one year ago. There’s a weariness in their voices, a recognition the war is still raging, even as vaccines developed with stunning alacrity offer some hope of a truce.

“We have been working essentially non-stop since last January and it’s not slowing down now,” Leis says. “Health-care teams are tired. There’s a lot of concern about burnout. It’s been challenging for sure.”

Despite COVID-19’s deadly toll, the vast majority of COVID-19 patients, like “Patient Zero,” recover. Still, even for some of those, their battle might never be over.

“These people just don’t get magically better,” Stroud says. “Some will have lifelong lung scarring and damage to their lungs.”

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau mulls mandatory hotel quarantine for returning travellers

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Former Stettler area resident Art Kempf celebrated his 100th birthday on Feb 22nd. In the morning, 100 cows were placed by family on the lawn of Royal Oaks in Lacombe, and during the afternoon, a surprise party was arranged by staff and residents of Royal Oaks as well. Later that evening, a surprise virtual birthday party was held with friends and family to celebrate and honor Art.
photo submitted
Former Stettler area resident Art Kempf celebrated his 100th birthday Feb 22nd

Kempf now lives at the Royal Oak Village in Lacombe

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

Board and school councils are celebrating staff during the month of February.
photo submitted
Board and school councils celebrate staff during the month of February

‘Our school staff and support staff make the success of our students happen.’

Alberta Health reported two new COVID-19 deaths in Red Deer Friday. (Image courtesy CDC)
Two more deaths linked to Olymel outbreak in Red Deer

Province reported 356 additional COVID-19 cases Friday

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta’s budget promises more help for COVID-19 with a hard deficit

Annual spending on debt interest is closing in on $3 billion

Bookings for COVID-19 vaccines for people age 75 or older start Wednesday. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Updated: Delays for seniors booking for vaccine appointments

By 9:20 a.m. Wednesday, 4,500 seniors had booked their appointments

A helicopter flies past a mountain near McBride, B.C., on Saturday January 30, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Avalanche warning for backcountry users in North and South Rockies

Avalanche Canada is urging backcountry users to always check their regional avalanche forecasts

Supporters pray outside court in Stony Plain, Alta., on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, as a trial date was set for Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church. He is charged with holding Sunday services in violation of Alberta’s COVID-19 rules and with breaking conditions of his bail release. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Trial date for jailed Alberta pastor charged with breaking COVID-19 health orders

The court says it will reconvene with lawyers on March 5 for a case management plan by teleconference

A pharmacist prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at Village Green Retirement Campus in Federal Way on Jan. 26. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
Canada approves use of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine

The country joins more than a dozen others in giving the shot the green light

Emily Keeping of Wetaskiwin, Alta., was last seen at 4:20 p.m. on Feb. 25, 2021 at the FasGas on 49 St and 50 Ave in Wetaskiwin. Supplied/ Wetaskiwin RCMP.
UPDATE: Wetaskiwin RCMP seek assistance in locating missing 11-year-old

Emily Keeping was last seen on Feb. 25, 2021 at the FasGas on 49 St and 50 Ave in Wetaskiwin.

Sylvan Lake's Winter Village lured many visitors to the town this winter. The town has launched a new contest to attract a new business.
(Black Press file photo)
Sylvan Lake offering rent-free storefront space to lure new businesses

Winning business proposal will get a storefront space rent-free for a year

Alberta premier Jason Kenney, right and Doug Schweitzer, Minister of Justice and Solicitor General, provide details about Bill 13, the Alberta Senate Election Act., in Edmonton Alta, on Wednesday June 26, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Minister Doug Schweitzer talks on Enhanced COVID-19 Business Benefit

Provincial government rolling out new benefit this April to better help small businesses.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
NDP will not trigger election as long as pandemic continues: Singh

‘“We will vote to keep the government going’

Mike Ammeter (Photo by Rebecca Hadfield)
Sylvan Lake man elected chair of Canadian Canola Growers Association

Mike Ammeter is a local farmer located near the Town of Sylvan Lake

Most Read