As Parliament shuts down and schools and universities cancel classes in response to the new coronavirus pandemic, Canadians may be wondering whether to continue with other run-of-the-mill social interactions, like hosting children’s playdates, attending dinner parties or running errands.
Besides the standard guidelines to practice hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, there are no clear rules around which activities are safe and which are not. Read on for guidance on deciding whether to cancel plans.
What is physical distancing exactly?
Physical distancing simply means taking measures to minimize close contact with others. These include at the individual level, such as self-isolation and self-monitoring, and at the community level, such as the closure of schools, community centres and public transit, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. (See below for recommendations on specific, individual-level measures.)
How big will your gathering be?
“There is no hard and fast rule,” says Tom Koch, an adjunct professor in the department of geography at the University of British Columbia. But in denser groups, he says, it’s more likely that someone who is infectious but does not show symptoms will be there.
While large-scale sporting events, such as NBA games, have been cancelled, Dr. Koch says, he would be far less concerned "if it was a local game with a crowd of, say, 100 parents watching their kids.”
Meanwhile, Greta Bauer, professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Western Ontario, recommends avoiding all non-essential group activities for now, beyond small groups. But she isn’t about to prescribe exact numbers.
“I don’t think that’s necessary the right way to think about it,” Dr. Bauer says. Instead, she says, the idea is to generally try to reduce the number of people with whom you come in contact, and to consider who they are and what their risk levels are.
Who will be there?
Are the people you’ll be meeting also, for the most part, staying at home, or are they out interacting with many others? Are they people you need to protect, such as older adults, those who have medical conditions, and health care workers, who we need to stay healthy? These are some of the questions to consider, Dr. Bauer says.
She suggests choosing other people with whom to hang out exclusively for the time being. For example, pair up with another family and have your children play only with each other. "It doesn’t seem reasonable to necessarily make kids sit home by themselves,” she says.
What about one-on-one interactions with the grocery store clerk, the hairdresser or the dentist?
There’s no need to avoid shopping for groceries if you need them, and we want businesses to keep functioning, Dr. Bauer says.
“The idea is not to shut down all of society,” she says, but there are precautions you can take while you’re out.
Bring disinfectant wipes with you and keep your distance from other shoppers, she suggests. Most places like hair salons or dentist’s offices are already cautious about maintaining hygiene and are likely taking extra measures during the pandemic.
Are you being overly cautious?
Consider whether there’s any real harm in cancelling an event or not attending, Dr. Bauer says. If it’s unnecessary, you may not want to risk it. All of this may seem like an overreaction, she says, but every infection you can prevent today represents multiple infections that are prevented down the road. And keep in mind that the situation is rapidly changing, so what seems extreme now may not seem that way later, she adds.
The following are specific individual-level physical-distancing measures recommended by the Public Health Agency of Canada:
This is for anyone who has symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) and is either suspected to have or known to have COVID-19. Do not leave home. Have supplies delivered to you and left at your front door, or receive them while maintaining a two-metre distance from the person delivering them to you. If you absolutely must leave home, such as for a medical appointment, wear a mask, do not use public transit, and keep two-metres away from others.
Also called voluntary home quarantine. This is for people who do not have symptoms, but have been in close, unprotected contact with those who are ill or their bodily fluids. Most who fit this category have been exposed to a patient who has tested positive for COVID-19 prior to their positive test, says Lynora Saxinger, infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta. Isolate yourself at home, and avoid contact with others.
This is for people who have been potentially exposed to the virus and involves watching for the development of symptoms. That includes individuals returning from a cruise holiday, for example, Dr. Saxinger says. Most public health officials ask that you keep a symptom diary and check your temperature. If you develop symptoms, isolate yourself quickly.
Protective self-separation: This is for people who are at high risk of developing severe illness from the new coronavirus, such as older adults, those with compromised immune systems and those with chronic medical conditions, explains Dr. Saxinger. If you’re among this group, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says to avoid crowds as much as possible, and if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible.
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