10/17/2014 09:44 EDT | Updated 12/17/2014 05:59 EST

Ontario health minister outlines steps to contain, treat potential Ebola cases

TORONTO - Ontario is taking cues from the United States' handling of Ebola — and its own battle with SARS — in beefing up procedures to contain and treat potential cases of the deadly virus, officials said Friday.

The province's chief medical officer has issued a new directive to hospitals and other acute care settings to expand training, provide additional personal protective equipment and improve protocols for diagnosing, containing and treating Ebola, Health Minister Eric Hoskins said.

Emergency room staff are most likely to come in contact with people showing Ebola-like symptoms and will be the first to receive the mandatory additional training, he said. Protocols for doctors' offices, walk-in clinics and the broader health-care system will be issued in the coming days, he said.

"We're all learning from what happened in the United States" and the experiences of workers fighting the infectious disease on the front lines, said Hoskins, a medical doctor who has worked in Africa.

There are no confirmed cases of Ebola in Canada, but a man in Texas died last week after contracting the virus in Liberia and two nurses involved in his care have become infected.

Hoskins said the risk of transmission is very low but it's important health-care workers, as well as members of the general public, feel safe.

"I want to assure all Ontarians that their safety is my top priority and that I will do everything that is necessary to protect their safety," Hoskins said in a news conference in Toronto.

Ontario's ability to anticipate and deal with health emergencies has only grown stronger in the wake of the SARS outbreak in 2003, said Dr. David Mowat, the province's chief medical officer of health.

Yet the growing Ebola crisis had several nurses' groups raising the alarm over what they called dangerous gaps in training and resources to handle the deadly virus.

Friday's announcement seemed to quell some of their concerns, with at least two groups praising the new measures.

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said she was "comforted" to see the province take action.

"Could we have done it yesterday? Yes. But we are doing it today and that's what matters to me," she said.

Included in the new directive is a requirement that two nurses at all times provide care to any patient confirmed as having Ebola in Ontario, with those nurses not allowed to care for any other patients.

Qualified management staff who have been appropriately trained must supervise the safety of health care workers, Hoskins said.

"Ontario is ready to contain and treat any case of Ebola virus in our province and these enhanced measures will only make our preparedness stronger," he said.

Ten hospitals across Ontario — including two in Ottawa and four in Toronto — are being designated as referral centres to treat potential cases of Ebola due to the sophisticated infection control systems they have in place.

That same strategy proved effective during the SARS crisis, the president of the Ontario Nurses' Association said.

"The designated hospitals will provide special isolation units that are necessary to properly treat patients while keeping workers and the public safe," Linda Haslam-Stroud said in a statement.

The province is also outfitting ambulances to safely transport potential cases of Ebola to designated hospitals, and is enhancing the province's stock of personal protective equipment like N95 protective respirators.

Starting next week, Ebola specimens will be tested at Public Health Ontario's provincial labs, allowing for faster test results.

Hoskins is also creating an Ebola Command Table and an advisory table on Ebola preparedness as part of Ontario's response to the threat of the disease.

The current Ebola outbreak, which began in West Africa in March, has killed more than 4,500 people in that region.