March 21, 2020 / 6:12 PM / 13 days ago

UPDATE 2-Canada's coronavirus death toll rises to 13 as repatriation efforts step up

(Adds comment from Caring for Social Justice Collective, total number of ventilators)

March 21 (Reuters) - Canada's death toll from the coronavirus rose to 13 on Saturday, and the country stepped up efforts to repatriate Canadians stranded overseas as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the situation "unprecedented, exceptional and very difficult."

The government has tested around 83,000 people so far for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, Canada's deputy chief public health officer Howard Njoo told reporters. There have been 1,099 confirmed cases.

Canada has taken several measures to contain the fast-spreading virus, including closing its border with the United States, which came into effect on Friday night.

Trudeau, who is himself in self-isolation after his wife tested positive for COVID-19, told reporters on Saturday the government is ramping up testing to detect as many cases as possible.

"The ramping up of testing is increasing at a tremendous pace.... we are getting more equipment for testing. We recognize that broad scale testing is an essential tool in continuing to fight the spread of this disease," Trudeau told reporters.

There are around 5,000 ventilators across the country, Njoo said.

He also said Canada is making efforts to bring home stranded citizens, and an Air Canada plane is in the process of repatriating citizens from Morocco. He named Peru and Spain as two potential countries from which Canada was working with airlines to bring home stranded citizens.

But Trudeau said the travel restriction put in place by many countries mean not every Canadian stuck overseas would be able to come home immediately.

"We are going to ask people to stay safe, make smart choices and do the best they can in a situation that is unprecedented, exceptional and very difficult," Trudeau said.

Canada's foreign minister François-Philippe Champagne estimated there are ten of thousands of Canadians overseas.

Trudeau's government has pledged C$27 billion ($18.6 billion) to help the economy amid the virus outbreak, which could blow out the fiscal deficit and lead to higher government borrowing by nearly 40%, according to Reuters calculations.

"We have heard a wide range of estimates from economists and banks about how bad it is going to get. The only thing they seem to agree on is, it is going to get very bad. Fortunately, Canada is in an extremely strong fiscal position... and that gives us room to inject money into people's pocket," Trudeau added.

Meanwhile, Canada's decision to turn back asylum seekers who walk over the U.S.-Canada border has been criticized by advocates.

"The government's decision... ignores the recommendations of the World Health Organization and isn't part of a sound pandemic management plan," said Nazila Bettache, with the Caring for Social Justice Collective.

She said asylum seekers will cross by other means that are less controlled and will not have access to proper safety measures, such as a 14-day quarantine. (Reporting by Denny Thomas in Toronto; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

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