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Some provinces are beginning to ease restrictions and allow businesses to reopen, but the plans vary greatly in terms of detail and timeline.

It’s unclear what will be considered a “new normal” for most people as the novel coronavirus continues to infect people and the arrival of a vaccine is unknown.

André was joined by moderator Madeleine White on The Globe’s Instagram channel to explore the specifics that we know about reopening, what each province’s plans mean and how they will affect your life.

When will schools return?

Madeleine White: A lot of parents are starting to get tired of the home-schooling situation. What do we know about daycares? What do we know about returning to actual physical schools?

André Picard: It’s all over the map. Quebec is the most aggressive on this: Students in Quebec are going to go back to school on May 11, except in Montreal – Montreal is pushed back until the 25th. B.C. said this week that school is not going back till September.

I know parents don't like it when I talk about this, but essentially this year is a wash. This school year is done. We have to think about September. School is going to be more of a summer camp than school. We have to think about what school is going to be in the short term rather than the long term.

Quebec has made no secret that it wants kids to go back to school, not because they think kids are going to learn much, but because they want parents to go back to work. It’s an economic decision not an education decision. Quebec has been quite open about this being based on the belief that only half the parents, at most, will send their kids back. It’s going to be voluntary, and that’s another sign that not a lot of school work will be done.

How do we make work safe?

Madeleine: In the absence of a vaccine, what responsibility do employers have to provide a safer work environment for employees?

André: All employers are going to struggle with this. I think most businesses are going to be actually much more conservative than what the law is.

We see that now. People are very, very cautious about getting their employees in situations that could be problematic.

For white-collar workers: How are we going to get people in 64-floor buildings? I can’t wrap my mind around that. So what does the research say about this? It says you have to do physical distancing, keep people apart as much as we can.

The other term we are going to become quite familiar with is ‘temporal distancing,’ – that is, spreading your workers over time. Instead of having 50 workers at 9-to-5, start at 5 a.m., then another shift at 1 p.m. We will likely see staggered workplaces to make offices emptier.

Blue-collar workers – people in factories – that’s really tough. We are seeing what’s happening in meat plants now: When people work side by side, that’s where the risk really exists. Now, those workers have face shields and masks, but that’s not where they get the virus. They get infected when they go to the lunchroom, the washroom, when they take off the gear – they touch their mouths or faces, and that’s really hard to control.

If you go to med school, you learn the process to don and doff the equipment. Those are the expressions for protective equipment – it’s a procedure you have to learn, and you have to do every single step. You can't afford to miss one step or else you put yourself at risk.

There is going to be training for working in the new workplace, and a lot more cleaning. There’s going to be really strict rules around going to work sick. Now, that will be a non-starter. The slightest little cough or sniffle, you’re going to be out of the office. We are going to have to create these new work rules and adapt.

Are vaccines essential?

Madeleine: How important is a vaccine to get back to what was normal three months ago?

André: Ultimately, that’s what we need. We need a vaccine. The vaccine is really essential because the alternative is we all get sick and get some sort of immunity. But we have to figure out the immunity question first [and whether that means we can’t get reinfected by this coronavirus].

If we get a vaccine, will it be a vaccine like measles where you get the vaccine once and you're protected for life? Or will it be a flu vaccine, where it's a different strain every year and you get the vaccine annually?

There are a lot of questions, but first we have to figure out the technical aspects: Can we do it? And that’s not a given. There has never been a coronavirus vaccine. If you can do it, theoretically, then we can start having serious discussions about vaccines.

A big question for Canada is ‘Do we have the manufacturing capacity? Once there’s a vaccine, will we be able to make it?’ We have to really start thinking about and planning for manufacturing right now, even if the vaccines are a year or two away.

Can antibodies be used as a treatment?

Madeleine: Is there any potential for treatment with the antibodies from people who have been infected with COVID-19?

André: One of the most promising things being tested now is taking the plasma of someone who has been infected – who has antibodies – and injecting it into someone who is sick to try to treat them. This is being done on an emergency basis. The last I read, about 500 people have had blood plasma as a treatment with mixed results. It hasn’t been tried as a preventive treatment yet because of the risk.

We know so little about how the virus infects people that you risk making people sick and you don't want to do that. We certainly don't want to inject people with coronavirus.

It’s very similar to the first vaccines – that’s what they did. They scraped off some virus and injected it into another person, and that’s how we created vaccines. This approach has a long history of working, but you have to figure out how to do it safely. Those early vaccines also killed lots of people, and we don’t want that. It’s finding the benefit, but also making it safe.

How long will a vaccine take?

Madeleine: You had a column recently about what our new mantra should be– it’s time to go outside, but don’t congregate. There’s a lot of anxiety about ‘What if somebody is sick and sneezes, and I walk through it without knowing?’ Can you explain why passerby risk outside is so low?

André: Sneezing isn’t a big symptom of coronavirus, so that’s a good sign they probably have something else. The thing you have to worry about the most is being in close contact with someone who is sick. Sometimes we lose sight of that really essential detail when we get worried about all the technicalities. If someone is sick, and they’re shedding a lot of virus, that’s your biggest risk.

Beyond that, we know that some people can be asymptomatic and still be infectious, but they are much less infectious than someone who is actively sick. With someone who is actively sick inside, you have to worry about them touching things indoors – that doesn’t exist nearly as much outside.

Even if someone does have COVID, they cough, and it goes on you, it still has to get into your system. We don't have immunity to coronavirus, but we still have an immune system. There are a lot of things that have to happen for you to get infected.

We can’t be overly obsessed about getting sick and getting infected. It’s about this basic stuff. Keep your bubble small. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. These are our best tools to protect ourselves – and they seem to be working quite well. We don’t know how many people are infected yet, but it is not 90 per cent. It’s maybe 10 per cent. These measures that we’re taking are working.

Watch the livestream:

Globe health columnist André Picard examines the complex issues around reopening schools and businesses after the coronavirus lockdown. He says whatever happens as provinces reopen, there's also a second wave of COVID-19 illnesses looming in the fall. André was talking via Instagram Live with The Globe's Madeleine White.

Recent reporting:

André Picard: Quebec’s move to allow seniors outside care homes affords the dignity we need in this pandemic

André Picard: As Canada begins to flatten the curve, Montreal’s high COVID-19 rates make the city a tragic anomaly

About André Picard:

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist for The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is one of our go-to reporters for health-related COVID-19 questions. He is an eight-time nominee for the National Newspaper Awards, Canada’s top journalism prize, and past winner of the prestigious Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He was named Canada’s first “Public Health Hero” by the Canadian Public Health Association.

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