covid-19 joshua tepper

The head of a Toronto hospital answers all your COVID-19 questions

Amidst the concerns surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak — which has now been named a pandemic by the World Health Organization — we reached out to North York General Hospital to get answers to some frequently asked questions about the virus.

Below, Dr. Joshua Tepper, the president and chief executive officer of North York General Hospital, shares information on who is at a high risk, what you should stock up on, if you should cancel your travel plans and more.

We’ve seen that the virus affects seniors more than healthy adults; what about children?

COVID-19 does not appear to affect children in the same way that it affects older adults. The disease appears quite mild in children.

What should Torontonians know about wearing a mask to prevent spreading or catching the virus?

People who have respiratory symptoms such as fever, cough, congestion or runny nose wear a mask as well as those individuals caring for a person with these symptoms. Healthy people can prevent the spread of the virus by cleaning their hands regularly. Routine wearing of a mask by healthy people as part of their routine daily activities is not recommended.

With March break coming up, what precautions should people take while flying to protect from infection?

Travellers should try to avoid contact with sick passengers and wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contains 60 per cent to 95 per cent alcohol.

Can the virus be transmitted through air circulating in an airplane?

COVID-19 is not an airborne illness, it is spread by droplet that are created by coughing and sneezing and fall within 2m of the affected individual. Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily. Sick individuals should wear a mask, if available, to reduce the spread and hand hygiene is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of this virus.

Is it wise to avoid all cruise travel for the near future?

Cruise ships do appear to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Due to the large numbers of people in close quarters, the spread of COVID-19 is more likely to happen if an infected person is on board. Although COVID-19 is a droplet contact virus, surfaces may become contaminated and be a source of transmission. The Chief Medical Officer of Health at The Public Health Agency of Canada has recently warned “Today the Public Health Agency of Canada is recommending that Canadians avoid all cruise ship travel due to COVID-19.”

If I plan to travel to a country that currently has about the same number of confirmed cases as Canada does, is that considered a low-risk destination? Or should I avoid those countries as well?

Information is constantly changing so travellers should regularly check the federal government’s travel advisory for their destination country. With so many countries reporting cases of COVID-19, all travellers are to closely monitor their health for 14 days after returning to Canada. Elderly individuals are being advised to avoid group settings to reduce their risk of exposure, given the severity of COVID-19 in this age group.

Are people with chronic disease at a higher risk for having complications due to the virus?

There is evidence that the virus more significantly impacts those who are older and with other medical problems, particularly respiratory problems.

Is hand sanitizer enough to protect from the virus or should people be wearing gloves?

The best way to protect yourself is by washing your hands using soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. People should also avoid touching their face to reduce the risk of transmission.

How close do you have to be to an infected individual to be at risk for catching the virus?

Because the virus is spread through droplets close contact (two meters) with an infected patient is required to be at risk of infection. More prolonged contact and exposures  (eg, in a household setting) can increase the risk.

What symptoms should individuals be on the lookout for, and what actions should they take if they identify any of the symptoms?

Common symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Call your doctor or Public Health Ontario if you develop symptoms, and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19 or have recently traveled from an area with widespread or ongoing community spread of COVID-19.  People who are sick or have health concerns should seek medical care when necessary even if it is unlikely to be COVID-19.

How long does the virus survive on surfaces?

According to Public Health Ontario, “there is no specific evidence documenting transmission through fomites. However, the virus has been detected on surfaces in the patient environment and this is a likely source of transmission based on experience with other coronaviruses.” Seasonal human coronaviruses can survive on surfaces for hours to a few days.

Is it safe to receive packages from countries that have a high number of infected cases?

It’s unlikely that items shipped from countries with a high number of infected individuals would contain the virus.

People across the GTA are stocking up on non-perishable food, sanitizer, toilet paper, etc. Do you think this is necessary?

The Canadian government does have a list of supplies each household should have in case of an emergency. For those caring for someone with COVID-19, the government recommends stocking up on a few items: soap, facial tissue, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, paper towels, household cleaning products, laundry and dishwashing detergents, fever-reducing medication, garbage bags and household bleach for disinfecting surfaces.

Dr. Joshua Tepper is a family physician and the President and Chief Executive Officer of North York General Hospital.

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