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How to protect yourself and others from infection as COVID-19 cases increase

Last Updated Apr 8, 2020 at 8:08 pm EDT

PIXABAY/Martin Slavoljubovski

The global outbreak of a new coronavirus has disrupted the lives of Canadians in very significant ways, with states of emergency declared across several provinces and mandatory shutdowns of non-essential businesses.

The Public Health Agency of Canada rapidly moved from containment in early March to slowing the spread of the virus by mid-month and the number of positive case numbers has grown to over 5000 across the country.

The country’s medical authorities as well as provincial and local ones have repeatedly and consistently been providing information on how to best protect yourself against the virus, with staying home being the most prominent among the messaging sent out to the public.

The other oft-repeated advice includes:

  • Practice physical distancing and stay at least 6 feet away from others
  • Wash your hands often, properly and thoroughly and use hand sanitizer.
  • Don’t touch your face
  • Sneeze or cough into your elbow or a tissue and discard the tissue immediately
  • Do not leave the house except for essentials
  • Limitations on public gatherings have also been implemented and vary by province.

 

Here’s a look at some tips, common misconceptions and best practices for staving off infection as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

Who is most at risk?

Those believed to be at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 include anyone with a lung impairment or respiratory issues such as smokers, those predisposed to pneumonia or anyone with a pulmonary disorder, says infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness, who teaches knowledge management at the University of Toronto.

Risk also increases with age, with the case fatality rate notably higher among 80-year-olds, adds Dr. Michael Curry, clinical associate professor with the emergency medicine department at the University of British Columbia.

Does that mean the elderly should limit contact with others?

The country’s health experts say it is safest not to visit older parents and grandparents. If they need essential supplies, people are advised to leave them outside the door and avoid direct interaction.

A number of long-term care and senior homes have also closed their doors to visitors as several are seeing increased cases of COVID-19 and deaths caused by virus-related complications.

I know I should wash my hands, but what’s better: paper towels or a hand dryer?

Paper towels or towels actually remove a lot of dirt when washing, especially if you haven’t washed all that well to begin with, says Furness.

Given how common it is for people to miss spots or spend less than the recommended 20 seconds under the faucet, Furness says opting for the towel is a good idea.

“If you’re not going to commit to washing your hands really thoroughly with soap, then you should absolutely use a paper towel and not a hand dryer,” he says.

“In other words, if you’re in a bathroom with just a hand dryer my advice is to make a decision right then and there that you’re going to wash your hands really thoroughly.”

Soap and water is preferred to sanitizer, but is it possible to wash too much?

It depends on how well your skin tolerates repeated washing, says Furness.

Strictly following suggestions to wash before and after eating, after touching public surfaces such as bus or subway poles, and after using tissues or inadvertently touching your nose or mouth means you could be washing dozens of times a day.

“No one should be doing that to their hands. We don’t even ask health-care workers to do that. Instead we install hand sanitizer all over the place,” says Furness, whose research into hand-washing has included a 2014 study for Gojo, the company that makes Purell.

While hand-washing is the best way to clean your hands, it strips oils and dries your hands, which could make your skin crack and susceptible to germs.

“With hand-washing you also need a moisturizing strategy.”

Should I wear a mask?

In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, masks were not recommended for the general public and initial advice was unclear, even suggesting that it could lead to increased face touching and therefore increased risk of virus contraction.

However, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam now says non-medical masks can be used by members of the public as a way to protect others from catching the virus from those who may have it, but do not show symptoms.

However she stresses that there is no scientific proof that non-medical masks prevent a person from contracting COVID-19. She also urged the public not to use medical grade equipment, but rather save it for healthcare professionals on the frontlines of the battle against the virus.

It is currently unclear how long the virus remains viable in droplets released into the air and those exhibiting symptoms and anyone in the healthcare profession must wear a mask.

Can I travel?

You can travel, but you shouldn’t.

Dr. Theresa Tam has said all travel is now considered to be “high risk” because of the extent of the proliferation of the virus worldwide.

Canadians have been strongly urged to postpone or cancel all non-essential travel.

“Canadians are at risk of being trapped in a country for potentially two weeks or longer depending on the measures that countries take. Out of an abundance of caution, it is best if Canadians stay home,” said Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu in mid-March.

Canada’s borders are essentially closed to all visitors apart from returning citizens and permanent residents and the Canada-U.S. border is also closed to all non-essential travel apart from trade.

If you do choose to travel, you are required to self-isolate immediately upon return for 14 days.

Should I stock up on household items now?

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu has suggested that people gather enough supplies to sustain them through a two-week quarantine if needed, just as people should prepare for any unexpected emergency such as a snowstorm or power outage.

That advice was soon followed by social media posts depicting mass-purchases of toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and groceries — and Hajdu trying to clarify her remarks by saying they were meant to be practical.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says people should be cautious, but that stockpiling is not necessary, while Curry says the type of dramatic quarantines we’ve seen in China are unlikely to occur here.

He says even two-weeks’ worth of food would be “overkill.”

Curry says maintaining several days’ worth of supplies is just good practice generally, but says grocery and meal delivery would still allow people to maintain supplies in an emergency.

Officials have repeatedly reassured Canadians that supply chains are open an grocery stores will remain well stocked.