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editorial

A sign for washing hands is seen during a news media tour of quarantine facilities for treating novel coronavirus at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, Canada March 2, 2020. Doctors and nurses are our most valuable resource, and our capacity to protect them is still behind the curve.Christinne Muschi/Reuters

It’s Week 2 of Canada’s war against COVID-19. Unfortunately, it’s Month 2 of the virus’s fight against us. We have some catching up to do.

Here’s what’s needed to bring us closer to this war’s end.

More social distancing

The steps Canadians are taking are having an impact. However, some people are still bending the rules, or ignoring them.

If you have symptoms of illness, do not leave your home for 14 days. If you are one of the thousands of Canadians just returned from overseas, do not leave your home for 14 days. And even if you are not sick and have not travelled, unless you work in an essential industry, stay at home.

No gatherings of any size. No non-essential businesses. Self-quarantine rules for travellers should be orders, not requests. Social solidarity around the need for social distancing is strong. Reinforce it.

It would help if Canada had one clear national standard on this, and one clear message. The country’s health ministers should be able to agree to that with a single phone call.

Canada is behind the curve, and unless Canadians fully embrace physical distancing, we cannot catch up to the virus.

However, though social distancing is crucial, it can’t be sustained forever. We need another weapon, which eventually will allow us to restart the economy, while keeping the virus pinned to the mat. South Korea is the model. The key to their success? Testing.

More testing

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded,” the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said last week. “And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case. If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with up to two days before they developed symptoms, and test those people too.”

That is what South Korea has done. After an initial spike, they have not only flattened the curve, but bent it down.

Canada’s testing gap is illustrated by the case of Sean Cunnington, a 51-year old from Milton, Ont. He died on March 18, but the test result confirming that he had the virus did not arrive until 10 hours later.

The level of COVID-19 testing in this country is already considerably higher than in the United States, and capacity is ramping up. Nevertheless, it’s clear that this country needs to be able to test more, and quickly process results.

As of Sunday morning, Ontario had performed more than 26,000 tests since the start of the outbreak – but more than 8,000 were listed as “currently under investigation,” meaning the results were still pending.

Governments must pour resources into this. We do not have to test everyone in Canada. But we have to be able to test everyone with symptoms, and those in contact with them. We have to test more in vulnerable locations where infection can spread, such as homeless shelters and seniors homes. And we must be able to test more health-care workers, so they remain able to work, without becoming vehicles for propagation of the virus.

Our testing capacity is still behind the curve.

More PPE

In Spain, it was reported on Sunday that 3,500 doctors and other health-care workers had tested positive for the virus. The goal for Canada is to keep that number as close as possible to zero. Doing so is not rocket science. It’s largely a matter of age-old hospital protocols – including enough personal protective equipment, or PPE.

PPE includes basic disposable materials such as rubber gloves and gowns and, for this fight, face masks and higher-tech items such as face shields and respirator masks. Doctors and hospitals have been sounding the alarm, and asking others – from dentists to construction sites – to donate whatever they have.

Canada needs to ramp up production, quickly. Governments should be issuing big PPE contracts. At the end of the epidemic, hospitals will hopefully have more PPE than they know what to do with. We can use it to build a giant pile of installation art, a national monument to Canada’s overpreparedness.

But right now, we’re insufficiently prepared. Without healthy health-care workers, all the ventilators in the world are useless. Doctors and nurses are our most valuable resource, and our capacity to protect them is still behind the curve.

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