As Canada enters its third month of physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is some confusion about what’s acceptable right now – especially as different parts of Canada are at different stages of the recovery from the first wave. Should you be wearing a mask at all times when outside your home? How effective are masks anyway? What about for my kid?
André Picard, health columnist at The Globe and Madeleine White, senior audience editor tackled these questions and more.
What are the options?
Madeleine: Let’s start by going through the different kinds of masks that are available to everyday Canadians.
André Picard: Practically, people should be wearing cloth masks because they’re easy to make. People can use medical masks, the paper ones a lot of stores are handing out. But they have a short shelf life. If they get wet, they’re not of use. Becoming much more popular are plastic shields. The big advantage is for people who have hearing problems, you can see other’s lips, and they’re a little more comfortable.
In both cases it’s really important that you wear them properly. Whether you wear a mask or a shield, you have to wear it properly and cover anything where the virus can enter your mouth, your nose, your eyes – and that’s the advantage of shields.
Madeleine: How reusable are cloth face masks?
André: That’s the benefit: you just wash them. You should have a few [cloth face masks]. If you’re out for the day, you should have several masks. Wash the mask any time it gets damp. Once they get damp, they become uncomfortable and less useful. Have a bunch and wash them with your regular wash.
But try to avoid handling the masks. The technical term is donning and doffing – putting it on and off. Be careful you just don't bring the germs you collect home and onto your hands and then put your hands in your mouth. That would defeat the purpose of the mask.
Protests during a pandemic
Madeleine: Should people wear a mask if they attend a Black Lives Matter protest?
André: Probably just to be safe, yes.
The good thing is, the protests are outdoors and there’s less risk of spread outdoors. The greatest risk is when you’re stationary in a place with other people, in a closed space. It depends on how big the march is, how close you are together, and if you are going to stand there for a while.
Most protesters, from what I can see on TV, are being quite responsible and erring on the side of wearing a mask.
Kids and coronavirus
Returning to daycare
Madeleine: A reader asks: Is it okay to send my kid to daycare when they reopen?
André: This is about personal risk tolerance. Some people let their kids walk to school alone, some won’t. That’s all personal, a feeling of safety.
In terms of the risk for children, we know children don’t get that sick, but they can be carriers. You have to take this all into account. How desperately do you need a break? Do you desperately need to get back to work? There’s no mathematical formula for these things. You have to figure out how to feel comfortable.
Madeleine: Let’s talk about the inflammatory diseases we’re seeing in children that seem to be related to COVID-19. What is the disease and what do medical officials think is happening?
André: This is very rare condition, it’s very similar to Kawasaki disease. Kawasaki is not COVID-19. Kawasaki happens with other infections. We don’t know why it happens to some children and not others. There might be some genetic marker that you have, we don’t know exactly, but it’s being watched closely.
The good thing is while kids get sick, they seemed all to be getting better. Pediatricians are on the lookout for it. Most kids will get it, but it will be like a cold, and we’ll never know. If they start having the severe symptoms, take them to the ER.
And that’s a reminder that people shouldn’t avoid the emergency room. It is a very safe place to be, if you need to be there. It’s much worse for your health to not go, and especially for kids.
Madeleine: How accurate are these antibody tests? They started rolling out two months ago – are they any better now?
André: Canada is being cautious on this, trying to figure out which ones work best and how accurate they are.
There's a case in Colorado where they did thousands of antibody tests, and it turned out the test was not accurate at all. It was actually counterproductive. Their infection rate went up because people thought they were immune to further infection when they were not, and they went out and got infected.
It’s important that we take time to figure out the right tests.
Antibody testing strategy
Madeleine: When can Canada expect to have a comprehensive antibody testing strategy?
André: We have a committee to figure out this strategy. They don’t have a fixed deadline, but they are meeting regularly, trying to figure this out as quickly as possible.
But again, it is about making sure you have the right tests. I know people are impatient, but we have to make sure that the results are useful. If the results are not useful, it will have been just a waste of money.
Social etiquette during a pandemic
Madeleine: Are public washrooms safe?
André: First of all, you have to say they’re essential. One of the big problems in the Trinity Bellwood incident is there were no bathrooms. People were defecating on lawns, which is not acceptable, but when you don’t have anywhere to go, these things happen.
Public washrooms are important and they’re less accessible than they’ve ever been. In Canada we are terrible about public washrooms to start, and this has made it worse.
I stressed that they are essential. Then the question is, how do we make them safe?
The good news is bathrooms are built to avoid infections. COVID-19 is not, as we say in the public health business, a fecal oral disease. The risk is being in any closed space. So minimize the time you’re in there, wash your hands, have one person in at a time. There is some laboratory research suggesting that electric hand dryers could spread germs so drying your hands with paper towel is likely a better bet.
We shouldn’t close bathrooms.
Madeleine: Senior residents and long-term care homes across the country have been in full lockdown mode since March. Residents are holed up in their rooms with no visits from friends or family and no end in sight soon. Will it be safe to open up these facilities to visitors?
André: I don’t think we’re ready for visitors, but I think we’re long overdue to have caregivers. We have to stop calling them visitors, they are essential caregivers. They should have been in there a long time ago.
Yes, there is a risk – the risk that they carried the illness out – but it’s outweighed by the needs of the people.
There are so many sad, sad stories about patients with dementia. They haven’t seen a loved one in 80 days. It’s really unconscionable.
Some provinces are allowing it, finally. Quebec allows it. They have the worst number of cases in long-term care, but they recognized it’s really essential, as important as the PSWs and nurses. You have to give families the right to come back, and stop calling them visitors. It’s insulting.
Watch the highlights from this livestream
Watch the highlights from our previous livestream:
Re-opening society after COVID-19 restrictions
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.