Jennifer Ferreira CTVNews.ca Writer
Published Tuesday, June 9, 2020 7:45PM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, June 10, 2020 2:36PM EDT
TORONTO -- As provinces lift their respective lockdown measures, Canadians are slowly adjusting to the new realities of life.
But it’s important to keep in mind that even as businesses reopen, coronavirus continues to spread.
Just last Thursday, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam warned that the country could see “explosive growth” in the number of COVID-19 cases if provinces aren’t reopened with caution. This came during a press conference discussing new national COVID-19 models released by Health Canada.
The modelling projects more than 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and as many as 9,400 deaths related to the virus by June 15.
“These models all tell us that if we relax too much, or too soon, the epidemic will most likely rebound with explosive growth as a distinct possibility,” Tam said on June 4.
Canada currently sits with 96,653 confirmed cases of COVID-19, more than 33,000 of which are considered active. Meanwhile, 7,897 people have died from coronavirus in Canada to date.
In spite of all the progress that’s been made, Tam insisted that ongoing efforts will be necessary in reducing the spread of COVID-19 as well as the chances of a second wave, at least until a vaccine or treatment becomes available.
Some of these efforts will no doubt be in the form of continued physical distancing as well as the maintenance of good hand hygiene. The Public Health Agency of Canada continues to advise Canadians to stay at least two metres away from those around them and to frequently wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
But with the return of sit-in restaurants, recreational facilities, and more, it’s important to look at what other precautions can be taken to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether outdoors or inside the home.
CTVNews.ca reached out to several experts to get their advice on how to minimize risk while making the most of life during this ‘new normal.’
KNOW THE STATUS OF COVID-19 CASES IN YOUR REGION
The key to being able to understand the risk of contracting COVID-19 lies in being aware of the number of related cases in the area where you live, explained Dawn Bowdish, a professor of pathology and molecular medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton.
This starts by getting acquainted with your public health region if you aren’t already, she said. Bowdish also recommends keeping an eye on not just the total number of cases in your region, but also the percentage of tests that are positive.
“We feel that it is safe if the number of tests that come back positive for the virus are less than five per cent of the total number of tests,” she told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday. “The longer we keep those numbers low, the better.”
Bowdish explained that a figure of five per cent or less when looking at the total number of positive cases indicates that an adequate amount of testing is being done. It also points to the likelihood that tests are detecting mild and asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 as well.
All of this, said Bowdish, helps keep transmission of the virus to a minimum.
For the latest information on the total number of COVID-19 cases across Canada, as well as the percentage of cases that have tested positive for the virus, you can visit the Health Canada website or check out CTVNews.ca’s interactive map.
AVOID MOVING AROUND
With Canadians likely to do more travelling as a result of the warmer weather, this also raises concern over a potential increase in the spread of COVID-19, explained Bowdish.
“Every province has a different level of risk right now,” she said. “A lot of tourist destination areas have extremely low cases and are very safe for the locals living there; if we bring the infection with us, we might be putting those areas at risk of re-infection.”
But this doesn’t just apply to cottage country or campgrounds – regions across Canada are all at risk of reinfection. Because of this, Bowdish advises people to stay within their region of residence as much as possible. This not only reduces the chance of transmitting COVID-19, but makes it easier to perform contact tracing, she said.
“In general, people from high-infection-risk areas shouldn’t go to low-infection-risk-areas,” she concluded. “People from low-risk places should try to avoid high-risk places.”
SPEND MORE TIME OUTDOORS
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist with Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont., recommends spending as much time outdoors as possible.
Considering COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, he explained that the best way for it to spread is “when you are in close contact with people in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time.” Examples of this can include a factory where employees work within close proximity of one another, being at home with a loved one who’s infected with the virus, or even spending time on public transit.
“You want to try to minimize being in these environments as much as you can,” he told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday over the phone. “Whatever you can do outdoors is actually very helpful [as] the risk of transmission is much lower outdoors.”
The reason for this is due to the natural circulation of air, explained Bowdish. Respiratory droplets carrying COVID-19 are more easily spread in confined spaces, especially ones that are not properly ventilated.
“Indoor or confined spaces that have recycled air circulation are at higher risk [of transmitting COVID-19] because those tiny droplets where the virus is able to live can be recirculated again and again,” she said. “Kept in the circulation for a long time, they can kind of build up.”
Whether you’re hosting a small gathering with close friends and family members, or even working out, it’s for this reason that both experts suggest doing as much of this physical activity as you can outdoors.
LIMIT EXPOSURE TO STRANGERS
The people you live with are often the safest to interact with as well. But as lockdown restrictions continue to loosen, you may be looking to extend your existing social circle to family members and friends outside your household.
In this case, Bowdish suggests being especially selective of who you maintain contact with, and keeping that number to a minimum.
This can be done by maintaining a ‘social bubble’ with one or a few other families, where you all agree to a certain set of rules and consider one another safe to be around. These should be people who you know have been practising physical distancing.
“This is an infection that is transmitted primarily through person-to-person contact,” she said. “As restrictions are lifted, if you spend a lot of time with a lot of people, your chance of encountering someone who has an infection is higher and your risk [of contracting it] is higher.”
“The degree to which you can minimize that will protect you.”
Bowdish suggests attending fewer social events – while adhering to gathering limits, of course – as well as limiting the number of shopping trips you make.
Chakrabarti even suggests designating one person in your household to do all the shopping, ideally someone who would have limited exposure to other social bubbles. This not only reduces the chance of transmitting the virus to others, but also leads to less crowding in public, another factor in increasing the spread of COVID-19.
“The main objective of keeping the [social] bubbles isolated is that you want to have the highest amount of contact happening between bubbles,” he explained. “Keep interactions between people outside of your group as little as possible.”
It’s also important to keep in mind that for casual encounters with strangers, the chances of being exposed to COVID-19 are “extremely low,” explained Chakrabarti. It’s typically interacting in enclosed spaces that pose the greatest risk of infection, he said.
Along with this, although 15 to 30 minutes can be enough time for someone to become exposed to the virus, infections typically tend to settle in after hours of exposure.
MAINTAIN OPEN DIALOGUE ABOUT PHYSICAL DISTANCING
When it comes to managing your social bubble, it’s especially important to make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of protocol and expectations, explained Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist.
Maintaining open communication around safety precautions and any interactions outside the bubble are key to establishing trust, according to Furness.
“You what to have a conversation about that – about what your [physical distancing] history is, what your philosophy is, what your attitudes are around that,” he told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Tuesday.
The best way of managing risk, Furness explained, is by reducing uncertainty. Maintaining an open dialogue does just that, he said.
NEW RULES FOR SOCIAL ETIQUETTE
For Canadians who are able to expand their social bubbles and are considering inviting others over, Chakrabarti suggests gathering in the largest room in your house, one with good ventilation and windows that you’re able to open.
He also recommends that any close physical contact, such as a hug, should be quick and that families and friends should otherwise get into the habit of staying at least two metres apart whenever they can.
“These are simple things you can do to reduce transmission,” said Chakrabarti.
And while he understands it isn’t always possible to do so, Chakrabarti also advises that people avoid situations where they are elevating their voice, such as laughing, singing and talking loudly. If someone infected with COVID-19 were to do either of these things, it would enhance the spread of the virus, he explained.
“We always talk about things like coughing and sneezing, which expel particles into the air at a very high speed,” he said. “Things like throat clearing, singing, coughing sneezing, laughing and talking at an elevated volume – these are all things that expel air at a high rate and that will push the virus out and can infect other people.”
He suggests either keeping these things to a minimum or, if you know you’ll be having a get-together that will be especially rowdy, hosting it outside.
“Obviously you have to be pragmatic about it,” he said.
WEAR A MASK
Bowdish also suggests wearing masks whenever stepping out of the house, especially if you’ll be in a place where you’re interacting with strangers and it may be difficult to practise physical distancing.
“Masks are used to keep your germs to you and to keep other people safe, so wear it as a courtesy,” she said.
Furness echoed this message, explaining that “when you go into a store wearing a mask, you are being protective of the people who work there.”
Despite mixed messaging surrounding the use of masks in public at first, PHAC now recommends that Canadians wear non-medical masks or facial coverings when it isn’t possible to maintain a physical distance of two metres from those around you. This includes places like stores, shopping areas and public transportation.
There’s no need to get too carried away with the personal protective equipment though – neither PHAC nor infectious disease experts recommend using gloves in public to protect against COVID-19, for example.
SHOW COMPASSION TOWARD OTHERS
Finally, Furness stresses the importance of extending kindness to those around you.
At a time when everyone is likely dealing with a lot of stress, it’s important not to be judgmental or overly critical of others as they find a way of coping with the new reality, he explained.
“Be mindful that everyone’s got their own challenges, their own knowledge and their own way of reacting to this crisis,” he said. “A little compassion can go a long way.”
A man wears a protective face mask as he walks past a opened restaurant patio on Granville Street in Vancouver, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. British Columbia has entered into phase 2 of the provinces re-start plan allowing some business to reopen. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jonathan Hayward)