Your coronavirus questions, answered: Medical experts respond to your COVID-19 concerns

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking fear, confusion and plenty of questions. Who’s most at risk? Should I cancel my travel plans or avoid public gatherings? And what should I do if I develop symptoms associated with COVID-19?

Global News has been flooded with questions from readers, viewers and listeners. We’ve asked some of Canada’s top medical experts to respond to your coronavirus and COVID-19 concerns. Below, you’ll find the answers.

As the outbreak evolves, we’ll update this page with the latest answers and information. Send your questions to [email protected]

What should I do if I develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19?

Symptoms of the new coronavirus include a fever, dry cough, fatigue and shortness of breath. But if you develop these symptoms, it’s still unlikely that you’re infected with COVID-19.

“It’s important to recognize that, right now, we’re in respiratory virus season. The symptoms of COVID-19 will be similar to all the symptoms that you’d experience from other respiratory viruses,” explains Alon Vaisman, an infectious disease expert with the University Health Network in Toronto.

“The highest risk individuals are those who’ve travelled recently or been exposed to somebody who is confirmed to be infected.”

Vaisman notes that most hospitals and community centres in Canada are still only testing those who have recently travelled abroad or had direct exposure to someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

“If you’re experiencing respiratory symptoms or fever, you’re most likely explanation is not COVID-19. However, the likelihood of that will change depending on what happens in Canada and whether we start seeing increases in community transmission.”

What are the chances of dying from COVID-19?

We still don’t know exactly how deadly this disease is. Globally, about 3.4 per cent of reported COVID-19 cases have died, according to the World Health Organisation’s briefing on March 3. But the actual mortality rate may be much lower.

“Most of those numbers are coming from Hubei Province, where they were overwhelmed with this. And so their mortality rate is artificially high,” says Michael Gardam, Chief of Staff at Humber River Hospital.

Because symptoms can be mild and many cases are likely going undiagnosed, experts believe the real mortality (or death) rate is closer to one per cent. South Korea, for example, rolled out a mass public testing programme, with as many as 10,000 new tests conducted per day. The mortality rate there has remained below one per cent.

Italy has seen a mortality rate closer to five per cent, but it also has the oldest population in Europe, with about a quarter of its residents aged 65 or older.

Who is most at risk?

“The older you are, the more likely you are to have a rougher course with this infection,” says infectious disease expert Isaac Bogoch.

In Italy, for example, the average age of those who have died was 81, according to Italy’s national health institute on March 5. And many of the victims had preexisting health conditions.

In China, the official mortality rate was 14.8 per cent in people 80 or older, compared with an overall national mortality rate of 2.3 per cent.

“So it certainly can take its toll on older people. Now, if someone is 80-years-old and they get this infection, is it certain that they are going to die? Of course not. It’s a risk factor.”

Are children at risk?

Children can become infected with COVID-19 but appear to carry a much lower risk of developing severe symptoms. Fewer than one per cent of confirmed cases in China were nine years or younger and there were no reported deaths.

“It is a bit of a mystery. I don’t think we fully understand why that is the case,” says Vaisman.

“It’s a respiratory infection and people with the most vulnerable lungs tend to be the very youngest and the very oldest. So it is mysterious as to why very young people are not affected the same way that we would see with other viruses.”

While unexplained, it’s also not unusual: children fare better at managing many other infectious diseases, such as chickenpox and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

That said, health officials remain concerned about the potential for children to spread the coronavirus to others, particularly since their symptoms are typically mild and cases can go undiagnosed. “They’re considered a real threat to others because they’re sick, but not that sick. And they can spread it to other people,” says Gardam.

What if I have an underlying medical condition or weakened immune system?

The answer depends, of course, on the severity of a person’s existing health issue. “Not all underlying medical conditions are created equal,” says Bogoch.

“If someone has mild asthma, they may have a bit of a rougher course with this infection, though likely not. But if someone has, for example, really hard-to-manage COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), this infection can certainly cause some damage.”

Other underlying conditions associated with severe cases of COVID-19 have included high blood pressure or hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

We have a spring break trip scheduled to California. At what point would you consider cancelling it?

If you’re wondering whether to cancel travel plans, health officials say your first stop should be the Government of Canada’s travel advisory webpage. Be sure to check the advisories for both your destination and any stopover locations along the way.

The website currently recommends avoiding all travel on cruise ships, for example. Vaisman says seniors or those with underlying health conditions might want to reconsider any trip outside the country, including to the United States. “Really think about whether that travel is necessary because they are considered ‘at-risk’.”

“If you go out and travel somewhere, even if it’s the United States and you become unwell, how’s that going to affect your family? How’s it going to affect your job? How’s it going to affect your colleagues at work? Because if you do require quarantine, it’s going to have a pretty significant effect on the quality of your life and the people close to you.”

Gardam says he’s personally decided to cancel all travel plans outside of Canada for the foreseeable future. “We’re seeing people’s vacations getting screwed up. I don’t want my vacations screwed up. I have no interest in travelling to someplace and then finding out I have to be in quarantine, or the place I’m staying has been put in lockdown, or my flights have been cancelled or whatever else. I don’t want to deal with that.”

I have tickets to a basketball game. Should I cancel those plans and avoid large crowds?

Health experts are stressing the importance of avoiding large gatherings as an effective means of curtailing the outbreak. “When you increase the likelihood of transmission by having people close together, then you’re potentially going to run into trouble, especially you’re talking about things that are non-essential, like parades or concerts,” says Vaisman. “All it takes is a few individuals who have the virus. All of a sudden you have a few transmission events and then the virus just kind of explodes from there.”

The coronavirus is understood to have a “reproductive number” between two and 2.5, meaning each sick person is infecting at least two other people. “So that’s enough to say it’s quick exponential growth,” says Jeffrey Rosenthal, a professor of statistical sciences at the University of Toronto. “There’s definitely the potential for there to be a lot more cases because it is quite contagious.”

The majority of cases are mild, which has helped to fuel the spread. “That may be why this outbreak has become so severe,” says Bogoch. “Many people who are mildly symptomatic are well enough to leave the house, well enough to travel and therefore transmit to other people. And that perhaps is one of the biggest contributors to this problem.”

Canada’s Minister of Health Patty Hajdu said on March 11 that the government anticipates between 30 and 70 per cent of Canada’s population will contract the virus.

Are people contagious before their symptoms appear? How long do symptoms last?

Once someone contracts COVID-19, it typically takes around four or five days before they start showing symptoms. But they can be contagious before that.

“People will probably shed (or spread) the virus for about a day or so before they feel sick,” says Bogoch. “That’s common with all viruses.”

“If you’re an otherwise healthy person, you may find the illness passes after a few days. Although people who are unwell, for example, or who have (underlying health conditions) like diabetes or heart disease, or the elderly, will have a much worse outcome and may experience more severe side effects, such that on around ‘Day 7’ they may require admission to hospital.”

Do masks protect against the virus?

Yes and no. If you’re sick, a surgical mask can help prevent you from spreading the virus to others. But if you’re not sick, it’s unlikely to offer much protection.

“Walking around the city wearing a mask intermittently? There’s no evidence to say that that’s going to help you,” says Gardam.

“You’d have to be wearing that mask 24/7 to not potentially get infected and never touch it and move it around. And you probably shouldn’t eat either, because you’ve got to take it off when you do that. And you should have eye protection as well. So a mask on its own, it really doesn’t make any sense.”

If someone gets the virus and then recovers, can that person become infected again?

“That has yet to be answered because we’re so early on in the outbreak,” says Vaisman.

“There were earlier reports of somebody testing initially positive, then negative and then positive again. Although this may have been due to the fact that the middle negative test was what we call a ‘false negative.’ It wasn’t an accurate test, but we don’t know the answer to that yet. We future research is going to be required.”

Do the pneumonia vaccine or the flu shot protect against the virus?

The flu shot and the pneumonia (or pneumococcal) vaccine, which is a routine immunization for infants and people 65 and older, won’t protect against COVID-19. But they can help patients avoid contracting those illnesses as a result of weakened immune system from COVID-19. In severe cases, the novel coronvirus may cause pneumonia and lead to respiratory failure.

Do you have questions about the coronavirus? We’ll find the answers. E-mail your COVID-19 questions to [email protected]

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