COVID-19. Facing uncertainty.

If there is one word that I would use to describe 2020 it is uncertainty. There are lots of others but uncertainty in so many ways has been at the forefront.  When COVID-19 first emerged in the early part of the year we had no idea where it would lead.  Just another flu?  Contained in some far away countries? A plague that will wipe us all out?  

In March, we understood little about the virus – it was “novel” after all – and so there were many fears around that unknown part.  Could we get it from packages dropped off by the Amazon delivery man?  Would we need to wash our groceries? Will COVID-19 overwhelm our Health Care System?  Will the measures we put in place to isolate and reduce spread actually work?

Now, by mid-August we have settled into a new reality.  Standing on those little circles, wearing a mask and dealing with a cashier who is behind a plastic barrier has become the norm.  There is less fear about the risk of spread from inanimate objects.  Being able to interact with people outdoors has been a great boon.  Our Health Care System was not deluged and is back to functioning, albeit with some new COVID-19 modifications. It is prepared and well positioned to deal with any new increase in cases should a second wave happen in the fall. The virus, we now know, is primarily droplet spread so hand-washing, keeping a suitable distance from others and wearing a mask when closer approximation is inevitable should pretty much keep us and our community safe. 

Kingston has done remarkably well apart from the nail salon outbreak that was quickly contained. From what we are able to determine our community was COVID-free for over three of weeks until two new cases, both in their 20’s, were found on August 19.  Over 2500 tests have been done in our health unit in the last seven days with a 0.1% positivity rate. This has given us a chance to enjoy more social interactions outdoors with low chance of being infected. 

Many European countries, often using strict social distancing regulations, were able to bring their epidemics under control. They subsequently re-opened their economies, schools and tourist industry. Many are recently seeing upsurges in new case rates. Even Austria (and Australia, too), for some time held as a great example of success at suppressing the virus has had an upswing in cases.  Good news is that, despite this uptick, death rates have not seen the same shift – yet.  This reflects that we now have a better understanding of how to manage serious cases, more knowledge about  transmission, and more diligence around protecting long-term care facilities and vulnerable people. We are seeing a lower rate of infection in older people who are at more risk of serious outcomes. Maybe they are being more cautious than people in their 20’s appear to be. Canadian new case rates have kind of stalled at about 350-500 per day  but our daily death rates for the whole country in the past couple of weeks have ranged from 4 to 10.  This compares to 150-200 daily deaths in early May.   

But, There is always a but, right?

The uncertainty is still there and will likely increase in the next few months as we attempt to get back to “normal”. Cooler weather is approaching which will take us indoors. School for elementary and high school students will resume in September. We can’t keep kids away from school forever and our social and business needs will resume. There has been an obvious increase in tourism in Kingston in the past two weeks.  Downtown patios are full.  People can be seen wandering in clusters many are not wearing masks even when they are in a group.  Restaurants have opened for limited indoor dining.  Students will be returning to Queens and St Lawrence College and we know that this age group have contributed heavily to the Canadian new case figures in the past few weeks and might be less diligent in adhering to Public Health recommendations.  

We will all feel anxious as these new parameters enter the mix.  How can we deal with that anxiety?

Unfortunately, this virus is going to be with us for a while. Maybe forever. We will have to figure out how we best deal with it until effective immunization is available to a large proportion of our population.Even then there will be some folks who refuse to be immunized, lowering the effectiveness for achieving herd immunity. 

There will be new outbreaks. But if they can be contained they will not lead to another shut-down.   We will, no doubt, be inconvenienced and restricted from time to time.  Over the next year, you may be required to isolate for a couple of weeks or your school/classroom/business might have to temporarily close.  The ongoing surveillance, testing and quick responses to new cases by our local Public Health authorities has been impressive and has contributed to keeping our community safe. Ongoing cooperation with our Public Health officers is the essential key to success.  If we continue to identify new cases early and squash opportunities for  transmission, however, we will, as a community, be able to keep functioning.  Advances in management will also lead to a reduction in serious complications of the infection.

The highest risks remain groups of people gathering, particularly indoors, with no social distancing and no facial coverings – especially parties or bar gatherings with clients “speaking moistly” and bending the rules for social distancing. My recommendation is to stay away from these situations and avoid any activities where people are not following Public Health advice.  If you think you are in a situation where  you can not keep the recommended social distancing, indoors or out, wear a facial covering. It will help to protect both you and others.  Continue to wash your hands and keep your cohort of close contacts small.

We have already adjusted to the many changes in the way we interact socially.  Our long term success in coping with COVID-19 will depend on our ability to continue to adapt and to follow the guidelines that our medical experts advise.

John A Geddes MSc MD CCFP

COVID-19 update. Numbers, Numbers, Numbers.

I will start with some good news.  For the first time since late March, Ontario registered less than 100 new cases (76 to be exact) in the past 24 hours. Most of these cases were concentrated in a few districts that have had a particular struggle with the virus but even those regions are showing improvement.  Hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths are also down across the province.  We shouldn’t get too smug about this, however, as the figures do vary from day to day and can change with very little provocation.  The trend, this week, is in the right direction.

Across Canada there are varied results.  Canadian numbers were generally trending downward until about 10 days ago when a definite uptick occurred.  At the end of June,  Canada’s new daily case rate was averaging  around 300 per day but it has been creeping up with recent averages being near 450.   Alberta and British Columbia, provinces that had been experiencing very low rates and were held as examples, have led the numbers of new cases.  Similarly in countries that had been deemed examples of low infection rates (eg. Australia, Israel, Hong Kong) there have been significant regional outbreaks and increases in both infection rates and deaths resulting in renewed lock-downs.

Canada’s death rates attributed to COVID-19 have remained low despite the increase in new cases.  This likely has several explanations.  The vast majority of early deaths due to COVID-19 were in elderly people with predisposing factors and associated with long term care facilities.  Many of the very vulnerable have succumbed. We are being more attentive and cautious with this population in order to lower their risks. Treatment options for those who are severely ill has also refined and become more effective as we learn more about the virus and what treatments are likely to bring better outcomes. 

Another somewhat worrisome factor is that in new cases the demographics have shifted to involve many more people in the under 40 age group. Although these folks would be less likely to be severely ill or die, it has been suggested that  some of those who have been infected may have undetermined long-term health consequences .  Minimally symptomatic young folks might also serve as a reservoir for the virus in the community and be a source of spread to people who are more vulnerable.

In the last month there have been ten new cases diagnosed in our KFLA Health unit.  Eight of those cases are reportedly people in their 20’s or younger.   Some are known contacts of other cases or associated with our previous nail salon outbreak but five are also listed as having travelled outside our region as where they acquired the virus. It is probable that travel was not the only risk since people in this age group are tending not to be so cautious with social distancing or wearing masks.  I often see collections of young adults on the street, not wearing masks and not keeping the proscribed six-foot distance from each other. Dr Kieran Moore, the KFLA Medical Officer of Health, continues to provide updates to the community. His most recent can be found here or at the end of this post.

Currently we have only 3 active cases, all in isolation, in Kingston.  This means our risk at the moment of acquiring infection in the community is low.  But it is not zero.  I worry that we will get complacent and lower our guard.

I wonder what will happen at the end of the month when college and university students from outside our area return to Kingston. Queen’s may be very diligent about contact on campus but many of these students will be living in houses together and I can imagine that house parties, known to be one of the main ways of transmission in North America in this young adult group, will happen. How can this be managed to avoid breaking our (so-far) very successful Kingston bubble? 

Bars will also be open and as cooler weather follows, so will the tendency to move indoors from the well-ventilated patios we are now enjoying.  Add other respiratory viruses to the mix and we may be in for a difficult fall and winter season.   Will elementary and secondary schools also be open and will it be practical or successful to be able to maintain distancing and lower risk of transmission in these indoor clusters? What happens when the border with the U.S.A. opens up? We will be entering a tricky new phase with more services open and activities moving indoors as fall approaches. 

We are going to have to continue to be diligent, or even more diligent than we are being now, when the cooler weather comes.  We must limit the number of people in any indoor space so we can keep physically distanced.  We will need to become accustomed to wearing a mask when gathering indoors, on public transport and even in some situations outside. It really is not that difficult. Like wearing a seat-belt in the car or a helmet on a bicycle, face masks will become second nature. Even if face coverings only make a small difference to transmission, that effect might end up being a significant help to protect our community.

It is encouraging to know that there are around 150 vaccines being developed around the world and five of them are either in 3rd stage trials or about to start.  This is the final step before approval but it will take a few months to reach the next stage.  Even when vaccines are approved (probably by the end of the year) it will take some time to have them produced, distributed and administered so it will be well into 2021 before we will be seeing an effect from vaccine-induced immunity. But it will come.

 Until that time, we are stuck with doing our best to curtail spread within our community.  We will have peaks and troughs of COVID-19 outbreaks happening sporadically in different geographical pockets.  In some cases this may lead to renewed  local shut-downs and travel restrictions. We have no choice. We must come to the realization that we need to keep disciplined and follow Public Health recommendations if we are to mitigate the effects this COVID-19 pandemic on our Health Care System, our economy and our families. It will end. But not before a few more months of responsible community effort.

COVID-19 update. Whew!

We were doing so well, Kingston! For several weeks in May and June the Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox, and Addington (KFLA) Health Unit district, serving over 200,000 people had only two cases of COVID-19 , both having entered the community from the GTA.  In late June, however, we all squirmed as we collectively felt the equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard.  A series of cases that started in a nail salon were reported. This led to a significant increase in numbers for our area.  Our COVID-19 case total, plateaued at 63, quickly rose to 105. Thankfully this figure has held steady with no new cases in our district reported in the past week. The one patient requiring hospitalization has been discharged. The outbreak appears to have been squashed.

The surge we experienced was discouraging but not at all unexpected.  We can anticipate that pockets of COVID-19 will break out over the next few months.

This applies internationally, as well as locally.  Australia and Israel, for example, both looked like they had reduced their COVID load to minimal for a few weeks but recently they have experienced increased numbers that have made them backtrack with their re-opening strategies.

In Kingston’s nail salon outbreak, the cluster was rapidly investigated by our local Public Health officials. Testing was ramped up and  contact tracing aggressively pursued.  Our Public Health Unit, led by our MOH Dr Kieran Moore, was ready and acted quickly.  From the outset this leadership in our community with response to COVID-19 has been instrumental in keeping our city and environs as safe as possible.  Dr Moore has also been updating the community with regular You-tube videos that can be found here.

Kingstonians turned out in droves to get tested and over 7000 tests were done over a couple of weeks.  A few hundred people with probable exposure were advised to self-isolate. In addition to aggressive testing and tracing of contacts, the Health Unit quickly implemented a mandatory face-covering policy in indoor stores, restaurants and gatherings.  Other communities across Ontario have subsequently followed suit.   

Management of COVID-19 has also been successful lately in the rest of Ontario and across Canada with case numbers hovering at a manageable level and COVID-19 death rates dropping significantly.  We all watch in horror, however, as COVID-19 spirals out of control in many parts of the United States. In the past week, Canada’s daily new case reports have averaged 290 and daily reported COVID deaths averaged 12. In the United States, with a population about 8 times that of Canada the corresponding numbers are an astonishing 58,000  for daily new cases (hitting 70,000 yesterday) and 650 for daily deaths.  The US deaths are expected to rise in the next couple of weeks since deaths follow the diagnoses by two to three weeks on average.  

These differences in numbers are not just a result of increased testing.   For example, in our KFLA district, the testing rate per 100,000 population has exceeded 13,000 with a positivity rate of 0.4% (4 per 1000).  In the US, the test rates despite being touted as more than anywhere in the world are lower than ours at 12,000 per 100,000 but their positivity rates average 9% (90 per 1000) with a recent high of 19% in the state of Florida.

What can we learn from all this?

Canada, Ontario, and particularly our Kingston district have done a good job of mitigating the consequences of COVID-19 so far.  We had an initial manageable surge as predicted but our numbers have dropped and are plateauing.  We can ascribe this success to a disciplined, coordinated, non-partisan, science-based approach by our governments and Public Health officials.  All Canadians also need to take credit for a concerted attempt to follow the guidelines set out by our leaders. In general our habits have changed to protect ourselves and our communities and our efforts have paid off.

It would be nice if this would just go away all together.  But it won’t. At least, not soon.

We are going to see clusters of COVID-19 outbreaks occur in neighbourhoods, communities and provinces over the next several months.  If we are able to keep these numbers low, we can continue to contain the spread through testing, self-isolation and contact tracing.   Scattered communities may intermittently need to be more aggressive with local restrictions varying from time to time according to diagnosed cases or pockets of infection. 

There will still be some uncertainty when schools open to some extent in the fall.  Cooler weather will have us more indoors where spread happens much more readily than outside.  More university and college students, who have been hunkered down with their parents in home communities will return to Kingston. Eventually the border between the USA and Canada will reopen for non-essential travel.  Canadians overwhelmingly hope this will not occur until the USA has their house in order with regard to COVID-19.   All of these factors bring some uncertainty to what will happen with regard to COVID-19 in the months ahead.

Management  strategies to treat severe cases are improving every week.  If we can keep the strain on our Health Care system as it is currently, we can manage until effective immunization or a specific treatment or prevention  is found.  Effective medical advances will certainly happen but realistically we will be in this limbo period for several more months. 

The rapid containment of our recent local cluster is encouraging and reassuring. We have shown that if we  follow the requests and recommendations of our Public Health and political leaders we can feel confident that we can bring new outbreaks in our community under control and avoid the distressing situation we see south of our border.

It is not that hard to act responsibly.  Wear a face covering where indicated.  Wash your hands.  Avoid prolonged indoor contact with others, particularly in groups.  Keep social distancing where possible. Stay vigilant and guard against complacency or impatience. Hopefully, with competent guidance and cooperation within our community we can continue to keep ahead of any new outbreaks. Stay safe.

John A Geddes MSc MD CCFP July 10, 2020

COVID-19. A wake-up call.

Today I am thinking about that meme of Jack Nicholson in The Shining with “I’m Back” written on it.

After a few weeks of no new cases of COVID-19 in Kingston, with the exception of two cases that had a link to the GTA, the KFLA Health unit has reported 10 new cases in the past week.  Apparently none of them have known connections outside our district.  One of these is associated with a unit at the hospital, another works at a local restaurant and several associated with a nail salon**.  Public Health officials will be working hard to track down, test, and isolate any known contacts. By the time you read this, there may be more.

In the KFLA district, we’ve been both lucky and responsible so far. This recent little outbreak in Kingston should act as a wake-up call to all of us that we are not done with COVID-19 despite our relatively light exposure over the past few weeks.  Maybe the fact that we have had so little in our community has seduced us to be more negligent about following the advised recommendations.

In recent days, I have seen groups of people clustering, not within 2 metres of each other and not wearing masks outside an ice-cream shop, on the street, and in the barber shop.  I have had friends say “It’s OK to get together as long as it is less than 10 people”, seemingly unaware that this comes with the additional caveat that small groups can gather but only if they are following the distancing guidelines.  I see lots of people in stores, even clerks, not wearing a mask. It is encouraging to see the numbers in Ontario and Canada abating. However, we only need to look at what is happening in parts of the US where the guidelines are being resisted to see how quickly this virus can gain control. 

There has also been a shift in the demographic of COVID-19 cases to include more younger people. Perhaps this is because they are more likely to be mingling with each other and they might feel a bit less vulnerable than their older fellows.  I worry about when students will inevitably return to Kingston for university or college and we have all heard of tourists being spotted in Kingston from other districts.  Protecting ourselves by being cloistered is simply not going to be an option. 

I fear that complacency is asking for trouble.  While we are able to be outdoors, our risks are certainly reduced but because of our luck and success at avoiding a major outbreak so far in Kingston we have become lax with following the guidelines.  

I admit to having relaxed in some respects, too.  But I am going to try to tighten up.

I have a small group of friends that I will continue to walk with (less than 5) and we will do our best to keep our distance as much as possible and only meet outdoors.  I have only been in 3 houses of other people in the past 14 weeks and have only had two others come into mine on limited occasions. I will continue to limit indoor visits anywhere.  I will wear a mask whenever I am inside a store of any kind and often on the street when I see that distancing is going to be tricky because of narrow sidewalks or busier pedestrian traffic. I am aware that this will offer me limited protection but any advantage is better than none. It will also act to protect others from me if I am infected and don’t know it. If more of us wear masks under these circumstances it will become the norm, rather than the exception. This will help our community to limit spread. I will wear a mask in a car if anyone else is in the vehicle and insist that they do as well.  I will continue to wash my hands whenever I return from being out anywhere. If I become sick at all, I will avoid others and will consider getting a COVID-19 test if symptoms are suggestive of that in any way.  Testing is easily available now to anyone  and widespread testing with appropriate contact tracing will help to squash any outbreak we have.

It is discouraging to have to admit that this COVID-19 thing is going to be a challenge for several months to come. Like you, I was hoping it would  just go away. But it is here for a while. We need to continue to be diligent, without being antisocial or paranoid, in order to keep it under control, to protect our community and our Health Care System and to limit the adverse effects of this virus to as much as we can.

Stay calm but stay the course. Protect yourself and your community by continuing to act responsibly.

John A Geddes MSc MD CCFP June 25, 2020.

** In the six hours since I posted this blog i have heard that most of the new cases in Kingston are connected to the nail salon. Amazing how one breach in security can have unfortunate ripple effects through the whole community.

Covid-19. Modifying the “Stay At Home” message.

Kingston has remained fortunate that the COVID-19 virus has not caught hold here as it has in some other Canadian communities.  Canada’s numbers have plateaued but not dropped significantly in the past week.  Ontario’s numbers actually went up a bit last week but today’s count is better. The GTA is the biggest contributor to new Ontario cases. The numbers do bounce around somewhat so looking at the trend (and deaths) gives a better sense of what is happening than daily counts. Canadians have been able to keep the demand on our Health Care facilities manageable and that was the initial aim of all the restrictions requested of us. But there is still risk of clusters of spread and we’ve seen that some folks are being somewhat defiant.

In Kingston, our only new COVID case in the past four weeks has been someone who reportedly went to the Greater Toronto Area and brought it back.   I don’t know the exact details but this does point out that Kingston’s greatest risk at the moment is introduction of the virus from people outside our district that we invite in (tourists, relatives) or Kingstonians who travel, don’t adequately physically distance themselves, and then bring COVID-19 home with them.   Initially we were asked to STAY HOME, meaning indoors and not going outside for anything other than groceries or something deemed urgent.  Most of us complied.  It worked.   Now the message is still STAY HOME but the definition of “HOME” could be expanded to be within our district.  The stats from the KFLA Health Unit for the past month would suggest that picking up COVID-19 in our district from people who have stayed inside our community is negligible.

Reported cases of COVID-19 in the KFLA Health Unit as of May 26. The last reported case was introduced from outside our district.

That is great news. Let’s not get complacent, however.  You don’t know who the interloper might be.

We have adjusted to a new social normal already.  In general, people are seeming to keep their distance in public places. No one is offended if you veer away from them on the sidewalk.   Most people walking together are courteous enough to move to single file to let others pass within a safe distance when the pathway is narrow.   I thought today how, in the past few weeks, I have said hello to many more strangers than I did in the past and I’ve been greeted with smiles and responses.

We will adjust to the changes required to keep us safe.  I remember, as a child, bouncing around in the back seat of my parents’ car without a seatbelt and how much of an unwelcome restriction it was to have to wear one. Do you recall how restauranteurs and bar owners thought that a no-smoking policy would ruin their business? Think about the changes in airport security that we accept now as normal when virtually none existed only a few years ago. 

If you can adjust to standing by your German Shepherd as it takes a dump by the fire hydrant, then bend over to scoop up the poop in a plastic bag that you carry nonchalantly on the rest of your walk, you can certainly adjust to putting on a mask when you go into a grocery store. 

There will be other societal changes to which we will acclimatize.  Cash will disappear.  That trend has already started in many countries but these events will accelerate that movement.  For some time, indoor gatherings like theatre or conferences or church will be discouraged.  And people will be reluctant to participate, even if they were to occur.   Limits to the number of people in a store will be common place.  Take out meals will be more comfortable than indoor dining for a while.  There will be sanitation changes required to public washrooms.  Travel will be cumbersome and awkward.  

We will adjust. We have done so to many other societal changes in the past.

Eventually this virus will run its course or become manageable with medical treatment and immunization. In the meantime, we must remain cautious but not scared, compliant with the recommendations made by our Public Health Unit, friendly from a distance and courteous and respectful of others.  As a community we can support each other and protect each other.  We already have, in fact.   Let’s keep that up, Kingston.

COVID-19 We’re just beginning

Let’s start with the good news first.

Kingstonians can continue to breathe a collective sigh of relief as we enter this holiday weekend, knowing that there has been no new COVID-19 case identified in our Health Unit cohort for over two weeks.  All 61 of the previously identified cases have been declared “resolved”.    This is reason for appropriate celebration and considerable relief that we have passed a first wave of COVID-19 without experiencing the feared, overwhelming situations like those we have seen in some other centres around the world.

In addition the KFLA Health Unit figures indicate that only 18% of the cases in our district were “Community Acquired”, the rest being found in returning travellers or direct contacts of known cases.  Our Health Unit serves about 215,000 people. That means that of the 61 diagnosed cases – I say “diagnosed” because we don’t know if there are others out there that we have missed because they were not tested – 11 of them arose from sources unknown or random community transmission. That is one such case in 20,000 people.  Those are not bad odds.

Does this mean we can let down our guard?  NO, indeed!

It means that the measures that have been put in place in our community have minimized the spread of the virus and it has had nowhere to go so it has temporarily petered out.  But it is still there.  And it is still there with a vengeance in Montreal, only 250 kilometres away.  The reality is that our community remains highly vulnerable because we are still quite COVID-naive. So far, we Kingstonians are living in a bit of a bubble.

I wonder what will happen when we open up a bit or when people go to their cottage near Ottawa or when they visit their family in Toronto and return to Kingston.  What will happen if we start to get people from Montreal coming for a summer weekend vacation?  Or when some college or university students return to Kingston in September?  If we become overly confident and let our guard down too much will we start to see more community spread of this virus that is still out there, waiting to find  an entry point?

The World Health Organization this week has suggested that we are in for a long haul with COVID-19. Like HIV, it may be a pathogen that we will have to accept is here to stay.   We will eventually develop some “herd immunity” that lowers its prevalence but it may always be there, lurking and threatening to surge if given the chance.  There are also studies this week from both Spain and France suggesting that in these countries, where there has been a significant burden from disease this spring, only about 5% of the general population has antibodies. A similar study done in Boston and reported today discovered about 10% of the population had antibodies.  This suggests that the prevalence of undiagnosed infection or sub-clinical infection is less than we had hoped for and that significant proportions of the population are still vulnerable to infection.

This week, the Canadian government approved an antibody test that will be very helpful in identifying what is happening in our various communities to track this infection and aid in management. It is not ready for widespread clinical use yet but this is a start.

Just like what has happened with malaria, and TB and influenza and HIV, I am confident that we will eventually come to learn much more about this novel coronavirus and develop strategies and medical managements that will lessen the impact or be able to treat it.    We will develop better/quicker screening and testing for COVID-19 and be able to earlier identify and quarantine those with an active infection and their contacts. Maybe there will be a drug that can be taken by contacts that will suppress the infection proactively.  Hopefully, we will come up with immunization that will help to improve the herd immunity.  It will take a while to provide immunization to 7 billion people. Unfortunately, there will likely be a backlash and resistance from those who oppose vaccinations of any kind that will slow the process for the rest of us.

In the meantime we need to stick to what we have found is actually protecting us so far. Wash those hands often. Limit your close exposure to others.  Don’t gather in groups where distancing is not practical and particularly in indoor closed areas. Work from home when you can. Consider wearing a mask when you are shopping or in a situation where physical distancing is impractical.  When you are sick, stay home. Better yet, get medical advice and possibly a COVID test if it is advised so your recent contacts can be warned if you are infected and so you don’t spread it unwittingly to others.  We will need to take particular care of those in Long Term Care facilities and, as a community, protect individuals whose co-morbidities put them at increased risk of serious consequences of the infection.

Although the last 9 weeks have felt like a lifetime, we are only just starting. The COVID-19 virus is new to the world. We are guessing to a certain extent, using scientific reasoning, how best to mitigate its effects at the moment but how this unfolds over the next couple of  years is taking us down an unknown path. International cooperation and learning from the experience in other parts of the world has been helpful.

Some folks are eager and others might be understandably anxious about re-opening the economy. The bottom line is that we can’t remain in total isolation forever. My opinion is that if we proceed gradually in a responsible way and remain ready and responsive to deal with any emerging infection clusters that develop, we can go ahead with caution. It will be slower than we want and there will be challenges to working around new restrictions that will be in place for some time. We will adjust.

Life will change. Our societal habits will change.  But humans are pretty resilient and flexible and we have science and technology that was not there for past pandemics on our side.  Our short-term success shows that we can do it.  It’s a long course ahead, however, and we will have to buckle down and accept that sobering reality.

John A Geddes MSc MD CCFP

Here is a message from our Local Medical Officer of Health posted today on the KFLA website.

COVID-19 update. Kingston has dodged the bullet for now. But are we dealing with a revolver or a machine gun?

When I first wrote about COVID-19 a couple of weeks ago it was on the horizon but had not arrived with any intensity. The major concern at that time was that the virus would surge in and overwhelm our Health Care System.  Canada has had an advantage over countries that had been bombed by this infection already in that we could see it coming and take action to avoid it.   Social distancing was advised early.  Public Health measures  and planning were put in place.

In Kingston, Ontario, where I live, we have been fortunate to have been able to keep the “curve” pretty flat.  Our community of about 215,000 people has only had 53 documented cases of COVID-19 with 36 of those people having recovered.  As of April 10 we have not had any COVID-related deaths and only two people are currently in hospital being treated for COVID-19 specifically.   Some of this is just good luck.  But the community has certainly embraced the principles of social distancing responsibly.  Other factors that may have helped are that the local university and college has closed up and many students have gone home.  We have no tourists. Clinics are treating their patients “virtually” rather than in face-to-face visits.  We have passed the 14 day risk period from returning spring break or winter snowbird travellers who have isolated themselves to protect the rest of us.  Congratulations Kingston, it’s working for you right now.

There has been a partial flattening in other parts of Canada, too, but we are yet to reach the predicted peak later this week.  Deaths from COVID will rise across Canada for the next couple of weeks. There is a 2-3 week lag between the number of new cases and the number of deaths because deaths don’t occur immediately when the diagnosis is made.  

Is there a story behind these numbers that we have to consider?   How reliable are these statistics?   How do they compare to other countries or communities?

We have to bear in mind that the numbers are only for confirmed cases of the infection.   People who have had milder symptoms or even no symptoms at all are not included in these figures.  This means that the rate of infection in the community is certainly much greater than the numbers presented and that we must continue our social distancing practices  both to protect ourselves and to protect others.  

How can we actually compare how we are doing?  Hospitalizations and deaths are figures that are more reliable and a reflection of what is happening in the community in general.  About 10% of those who are infected will require additional medical care and are more apt to be tested and identified. We can look at those cases to determine the overall prevalence in the community.   Death rates attributed to COVID-19 are also an indicator of how widespread the illness is. The consensus is now that COVID had about a 1% death rate.  This does vary from one demographic or population to another but the affect of the virus on the community can be ascertained by looking at the death rate figures.  Because population numbers from one country to another vary,  I have been watching the deaths per million population number to get a sense of how comparisons can be made.    

According to the Worldometer statistics up to April 10, Canada currently has had an attributed  COVID death per million of our population of 15.  For the USA this is 57 deaths per million.  For Italy it is a terrible 312.  Italy’s high rate is in part because they were taken by surprise when the infection arrived and their health care system was submerged quickly.  This means that many people who might have benefited from more intensive care were unable to get it and subsequently died. There may be other factors like population density, a higher older population and more families with multiple generations living in the same household that influenced this as well. This disastrous result is particularly what we have been trying to avoid by “flattening the curve” and Canada has had the advantage of a bit of time to prepare and take precautions earlier than Italy.

We also have to be aware that this pandemic, although global, tends to be presenting unevenly in scattered epidemic areas, like New York City or Milan or even Toronto for example.  So numbers might be drastically different from one locale to another. 

The down side of being in the lower numbers right now is that this curve has not been erased but is only being flattened – stretched out so to speak.  Because we have a lower prevalence in Kingston, we remain more vulnerable as we don’t have a significant proportion of people with naturally acquired immunity and immunization is yet a year away at least.   The question is how will this unfold over the upcoming months?  If we let up on our social distancing will it lead to a surge later that is hard to deal with?  How can we gradually return to a more normal society and when will that happen? Will children be back in school in June? In September?  When will people who have been  laid off get back to work? How long will we be asked not to go for coffee or dinner with friends or family?  When will I be able to go to a movie or a theatre event?  When will travel restrictions be loosened up?  

No one has answers to any of these questions yet.  For the time being those of us who live in Kingston need to be glad that we have dodged this bullet and that we are currently able to sustain a reliably functioning health care system and not be overwhelmed with unmanageable numbers of seriously ill COVID patients or COVID deaths.  But we are stuck in this holding pattern for the near future and maybe several more weeks or even months.

 Before it is all over we will, unfortunately, lose many lives to this infection.  But with time, it will subside. More people will acquire natural immunity from infections that don’t present severely.  We will get more intensive testing to identify and aggressively trace and isolate specific people with symptoms and their close contacts. We could even identify those who have no symptoms but are infectious in order to limit contagion.  We will get a quick test to identify people who are immune.  I hope that we will also get some medical management to help manage the more severely ill patients, possibly reducing the need for intensive care and ventilation.   And the final success will come when we eventually have immunization.  

In the meantime, we must stay the course because for now, it is working, Kingston.

If  you want more numbers, here are some figures from Worldometer and the KLFA Public Health Unit as of the end of yesterday, April 10, 2020. These figures change by the hour.

John A Geddes MSc MD CCFP

Kingston, Canada

COVID-19 Numbers, numbers, numbers

The COVID-19 numbers out there can be scary.  We have cocooned ourselves for the past several days and the stats are still going up.  Most of us have nothing much else on our minds but anxiety about where this is headed, particularly when we look at the devastation that has happened in Italy, Spain and New York City.   We wonder “Is Ontario next?”

Today the Ontario government released projection figures that are both disturbing and motivating.  We know how this virus tracks from how it has exploded in other parts of the world.  With those models as a predictor, Ontario, without any restrictive measures in place, would have anticipated 300,000 cases and 6000 deaths by the end of April.   If we follow the current recommendations to limit physical contact and stay at home most of the time, however, that number can be reduced to 80,000 cases and 1600 deaths by April 30.  Still an incredible burden but it means we will effect a significant reduction of over 4400 deaths in Ontario this month alone if we just stay the course.  If we restrict further (and further restrictions may ensue) that number could be reduced even more.

It may be frustrating to see that we are trying to stay in and stay apart and the number of cases and deaths in Canada keep going up.  But that was anticipated. For a while we were slow to get testing results so the statistics lagged by a few days.  We also had the influx of travellers returning to Canada and some bringing their virus with them.  Some of those didn’t self isolate as diligently as requested. Although they thought they were not infected or had minimal symptoms, they could have spread the virus to others. There is also a 7-14 day incubation period before the symptoms become evident and some people have minimal symptoms of infection. This means that people who were exposed two weeks ago might just now be showing symptoms and becoming ill enough to test. And others are simply unaware that they are infectious.

Don’t get too frustrated by the current increasing numbers.  From the charts of the various possible trajectories, it is evident that our current social isolation is actually working to reduce the otherwise catastrophic infection and death rate that would have happened if left unabated.


Another graph that was released today was also encouraging. (see below) It shows the possible numbers (in red) if no measures were in place and the anticipated numbers if we are compliant with the current stay at home  and physical distancing recommendations (in blue)   The two dotted lines represent the Ontario capacity for ICU management in the province both in place prior to the pandemic starting (the lower line) and now planned (the upper line).  We are fortunate that we have had time to anticipate this imminent glut of infection cases and our hospitals are putting additional capacity in place.  If we follow the blue curve we will be able to sneak under the expansion capacity line.  That is good news.  

Our COVID-19-associated death rate per million in Canada right now stands at 5 per million population as compared to 21 per million for the USA and 243 per million for Italy.  Remember that deaths occur later in the process so they will continue to rise for the next while. As long as we can stay under that dotted line and have adequate access to ICU beds, we will be better able to manage the seriously ill and more lives will be saved.  Many of the deaths in countries with very high rates were partly as a result of ICU capacity being suddenly overwhelmed and medical management simply not being available.

So, the message is that the potential for seriously devastating numbers is there but we are already going to have some effect on the curve with what we are doing now. With more dedication to these restrictions we can do even better over the next month. This will be a marathon, not a 100 metre dash.  Take some big breaths.  Settle in to our new temporary reality and know that it is making a difference, saving lives, and in the long run things will get better.

Through various medical connections and meetings, I have been impressed that our Public Health officers, Ministry of Health and local and provincial physician groups and clinics have been very actively anticipating and planning for the surge that we anticipate that we will experience in the next couple of weeks. I feel confident that in Kingston, Ontario, and across Canada, we will receive excellent care and support during this unprecedented challenging time.

For my neighbours in Kingston, as of this morning we have 48 confirmed cases and no COVID deaths in the KLF&A district with likely many more out there who are not ill enough to have been tested. General testing has been a bit restricted initially because of the need to ration available tests but this will likely loosen up a bit soon so more cases might be confirmed. This increased testing may lead to more confirmed cases being reported.

COVID-19 Update. How this extrovert deals with Social Distancing

We are social beings.  We all need connection. Some of us more than others. This Social Distancing thing is urgently important so we can minimize the anticipated surge in cases of COVID-19 in our communities in the next few weeks.  Unfortunately, the need to socially distance ourselves is not going to go away soon. 

Social distancing is not the same as quarantine or self isolation.  Those measures apply to people who are returning to Canada from international destinations, people who are  symptomatic and awaiting COVID-19 test results, those who have had a COVID-19 diagnosis confirmed and people who have had direct contact with COVID-19 positive cases.  These folks should not mingle at all with others for 14 days or until they are deemed cured.

Of course, if you are sick you should stay home, even if it is not COVID but is another Acute Respiratory Infection. This will minimize spread but also not lead to so many others getting a cold and then worrying it is COVID-19

All the rest of us need to practice Social Distancing. This means we minimize as much as possible close contact with others as well as follow all the other the routine advice for hand washing, elbow-sneezing, avoiding hugging or handshaking and not collecting in clusters of people.

I will share with you some practical strategies that I am adopting so I can comply with the need for social distancing over the next several weeks.

First of all, I will, at this point, go for walks outside.   I need to get outdoors and have some exercise. We are lucky that spring is around the corner so we can actually get some fresh air.  BUT that comes with the caveat that we must keep our distance from others.  The advised two metres is best.  I have a couple of friends who are also following the rules with whom I will meet periodically so we can smile at each other, have a bit of a laugh together and share some conversation.   But we will work to maintain the required physical distance as best we can. 

When I am out I don’t touch anything that I don’t need to touch.  I don’t sit on a public bench, for example.  I carry a small microfibre cloth in my pocket so if I have to open doors or carry a basket in the grocery store, I can use the cloth to make the contact.  When I get home I throw it in the wash. (I have a pack of 5 that I got at Dollarama).   If I can open a door using my elbow or hip or a push button or Key fob I do that rather than touch the handle.  I am also putting my clothes in the laundry basket if I have been out somewhere during the day so I can start with fresh clean clothes every morning. Although the virus has been shown to live on plastic and metal for up to 72 hours, it can also remain viable on clothing or cardboard for a day or so. Better safe than sorry.

When I pass someone on the street I am attempting to say Hello or Good Morning even if they are strangers.  It is always pleasant to be greeted and a brief verbal hello might just make someone’s day.

I will try to go to stock up on groceries at off-peak hours.  I live only 10 minutes from my usual grocery outlet so I will walk there early in the morning or go in the last hour before closing to avoid the busiest times.  We are being assured that generally the food supply will not be affected.  The empty shelves that you may have experienced last week are the result of exceptional panicked buying and hoarding. It will take a while for those folks to use all that toilet paper they have in their garage so that will leave some for the rest of us when we need to buy it.  Same with meat and pasta and rice and flour and…    There will be food.  Don’t panic.  And while I am at it, I will extend our thanks to the people who are working to keep us supplied  – clerks, shelf stockers, truck drivers, all of you.  We need you and appreciate this service.

I will still see my family who don’t live with me from time to time.  We will avoid hugging or touching and we will be careful to wash our hands or anything that we might have touched.  We will keep our distance as much as practical.  If any of us are sick at all we will self-isolate and not expose the others. 

For example, I spent a couple of hours this morning with my 8-year-old granddaughter. Kids are scared. They know what is going on and they also know that their family and friends are scared too.  We were able to have a great visit, taking extra care to avoid close contact, washing our hands after handling anything and playing interactive games that we streamed to the TV.   We talked about COVID, how to look after ourselves and our worries. When she went home, we both felt infinitely better.  She was happy and so was I.

I have been making a point of connecting with others both locally and internationally by using FaceTime or Messenger or Skype for audio/video chats.  We need to stay connected.  Text messaging is fine when we are busy and have the opportunity to interact face to face easily but a smile or the sound of someone’s voice does a lot to sooth that need for connection.

The economy is also taking a hit right now and where that leads is uncertain for all of us.  We have enough to worry about now without being fussed about things we can not control.  None of us know what the next month or six months or year will bring.  It is futile to try to plan that far ahead right now so I am refusing to spend my energy trying to plan that far in advance or think about what situation I or, for that matter, the world, might be in by then.  It is best to set priorities about what we need to do now.  Currently my priority is to be responsible to my community, my friends and family and to myself so as to dodge as much as possible the immediate effects of COVID-19. Catastrophizing (is that a word?) is counter-productive and I will try to avoid going that route in my head.

There have been an absolutely phenomenal number of individuals, entertainers and groups that have reached out online to help us stay upbeat and mentally busy in our distancing mode. I have looked for those and will definitely join in to pass the added alone time.  I will also break out a jig-saw puzzle soon.

This will pass.  Unfortunately, the need to socially distance ourselves and the drastic disruption to our normal routine is going to last for weeks or even months. It will definitely get tiresome and I am afraid that it will be too easy to put these thoughts aside and let our guard down when the sun is shining and the weather is encouraging.  In order for it to work, however, we will need to stay the course. Remember that it will take some time before we reap the benefits of this challenging change in our social interactions.  

Hang in. Help others. Support each other. 

John A Geddes MSc MD CCFP

Kingston, Canada

March 20, 2020

My favourite coffee haunt looks more like a bowling alley these days. Up to be a pin-boy instead of a barista, Nick?

Addendum: Six hours after I loaded this post, Balzac’s closed (along with other coffee shops like Starbucks.