COVID-19 update. Back to school. It’s time.

COVID -19 will be a threat we have to deal with for the next several months and possibly years. So we need to find a way to reduce its impact on our physical and mental health and our society as a whole.

Part of that transition involves cautiously opening up the economy and getting kids back to school. This makes us all anxious because our generation has not been in this precarious position before. We find ourselves faced with a threatening new virus – a global pandemic. The whole world is wading through a quagmire where there is no sure footing.

I have children who are teachers, grandchildren who are pupils, family who are health care providers and I have been back to working as a physician and teacher of Medical Residents for the past three months both in a clinic and in a small group at Queens. I get it. I understand the angst about going back to work and school. Where I am working we are not doing things the way they were done before but we have been able to find a balance between providing service and taking care not to spark COVID-19 transmission. It has meant several adjustments, wearing a mask for several hours at a time, keeping a reasonable distance between people where possible and respecting others. It has not proved to be that hard to do. Schools will have a similar transition period filled with uncertainty and change and angst but I hope that, with time and inevitable adjustments, teachers and students will find a safe balance point.

There will be pockets of COVID-19 that spring up menacingly in localized schools, neighbourhoods and cities. We are in a much better place now to deal with those clusters than we were this spring. What we have learned about transmission and mitigation strategies may be able to help contain outbreaks and avoid a generalized surge that would require a more widespread shutdown.

Our Public Health authorities are preparing for these inevitable challenges, armed with better testing, improved availability of health care resources and ever increasing knowledge about the virus itself. We now know how to more effectively contain it and have improved management for patients who become severely ill. I have pointed out before that our Canadian numbers seem to be hovering for the past several weeks at a daily new case level of around 500 people per day. Despite this, our reported death rates are staying very low, averaging 4 per day over the past week. In May we were averaging around 150 COVID-19 related deaths per day in Canada! Let’s not lose sight of this good news. Are you aware that, by comparison, on average every day in Canada 11 women die as a consequence of breast cancer and around 12 people die of opioid overdoses? The Canadian Government reports that “Every hour, about 12 Canadian adults age 20 and over with diagnosed heart disease die.”

Now, this is not to downplay the consequences of the current COVID-19 pandemic in any way and other long-term consequences of having had a COVID-19 infection have not yet been determined with any certainty. We are being bombarded, however, with daily statistics about COVID-19 but we are not updated every day on how many Canadians (228 on average) have died in the previous 24 hours of cancer. COVID-19 is scary, but we have been made more frightened by the daily global focus on its statistics. Can we govern our behaviour based on responsible common sense rather than fear?

What do I think should happen now?

Cautious reopening of schools and offices is important to reestablish whatever normalcy we can find in this new pandemic situation. Children need to play and learn with and from each other. Following whatever public health guidelines are advised is important. Masks and social distancing as much as practical and minimizing opportunity for spread within a school cohort will be challenging but we won’t know until we work with it and make the necessary adjustments as time goes on and as we learn more.

What will I personally do In the next few months?

I will continue to work. I will follow the restrictions and Public Health guidelines that will, no doubt, change from time to time, particularly if there is some increase in COVID-19 in our community. I trust the judgement and advice of our local Public Health Unit and know that whatever recommendations they put in place are based on the best epidemiological and medical information available and done with the safety of our community in mind.

Consequences. We are all responsible for our behaviour.
Photos from Kingston Whig Standard and Queen’s Journal.

I was glad to see that the beach at the Gord Downie Pier was closed off entirely this weekend after a couple of days when young adults swarmed to the beach area and appeared not to be taking the required precautions. I hope that our city officials and public health can keep an eye on any elements in our community that are not respecting the current recommendations and move to enforce these with authority. If we don’t follow the rules, we will lose privileges. This applies to restaurants and businesses and movie theatre and schools and churches. And beaches

I will avoid crowded indoor environments. If I find myself somewhere that I think the required precautions are not being respected I will leave, and if I feel it is a significant infraction, I will report it to Public Health.

I will wear my face covering in any situation where I am exposed to people outside my close social circle where I am not able to adequately distance myself. This includes all indoor spots like cafés or stores or offices but I will also put my mask on outdoors if I find myself in the midst of a number of people. And, by the way, the mask doesn’t work if you wear it below your nose.

I have installed the COVID app on my phone and hope that you do too. This will ensure that if I have been in close enough contact to establish Bluetooth connection with another phone and that person, who may have been standing in line behind me waiting for the bank machine for 10 minutes tests positive and subsequently enters a confidential code, I will be notified that I should watch for symptoms and maybe get tested as it appears that I have been close to a person who has COVID-19. This will only work if lots of people do it. It will help in Public Health tracing for community transmission. Do it, please.

I will stick to myself if I am sick in any way. If my symptoms include cough, shortness of breath or fever, I will get a COVID-19 test. This will become simpler over the next months when rapid tests that only require a saliva sample are approved and become widely available.

I will keep a small circle of social contacts who I trust are also being cautious. We have been enjoying outdoor summer patios and walks but as the weather closes in, this will become more difficult. Indoor dining at restaurants poses a higher risk of transmission and if there is any increase in community cases of COVID-19, I will stick to meals at home. I will try to help the food hospitality industry by ordering take out or home delivery. It is not the food that is a risk, but groups of people sitting around indoors for a period of time, all without masks as they eat and chat.

I will not go to bars or indoor parties.

I will not travel outside my community for a while, apart from occasional visits to kids and grandkids in Whitby.

I will be eager to get my annual flu shot and whenever safe COVID-19 immunization is available I will take it.

I will be respectful of people who have views who are not the same as mine (like anti-vaxxers and people who balk at wearing masks ) but that doesn’t mean I have to mingle with them. I have clear boundaries about what I will tolerate or how I will protect myself and others and will adhere to them.

I remain guardedly optimistic that we will pull through this unprecedented disruptive time with lots of inconveniences but hopefully with minimal serious illness or loss of life and manageable strain on our Health Care System. It requires cooperation and diligence from all ages and segments of our community. We are certainly in a much better position in September to manage the challenge than we were when this was all brand new in March. Stay the course. We will get there.

John A Geddes MSc MD CCFP. Kingston, Canada.

This is an op-ed. It is my opinion. Yours may differ. What we know about COVID 19 is changing every day and depends on the current situation in your district. We need to be flexible and adjust to new reliable scientific data.

COVID-19. Is there any good news?

We are all traumatized by the incredible changes in our lives that have happened in the past couple of weeks. We also worry about what is to come. Canada could be swamped in the next few weeks with cases of COVID-19.  Just how swamped will depend on how much we pay attention to the physical distance warnings we have been receiving from all directions.

We are being deluged by the worst case scenarios that are being presented to us in order to make us sit up and take notice and do something now to try to reduce the inevitable increase in numbers of sick people and the extraordinary strain on our Health Care System and other resources in general.  We know, from our experience in the past couple of weeks, that it is impossible to predict how this will have unfolded a month from now.

Rather than dwell on only an apocalyptic view of the future, I think we need to be aware that there are glimmers of hope out there.  What I will present here is entirely my own opinion but it is these thoughts that give me some hope that we can eventually get past this challenge.  

At the moment, the number of cases in Canada is rising.  This is certainly discouraging but is entirely expected.  They will continue to rise in the next couple of weeks as people who have been infected prior to our physical distancing efforts, people returning from international destinations and cases that have not been counted yet rise.  We can not expect this curve to flatten until we get over this initial phase.  I continue to watch the cases per million number on the Worldometer site and Canada is sneaking up but not near with the slope that we see in the USA for example.   I am hoping that this slope will flatten after a couple of weeks to keep our total number of cases per million at a manageable number.

How “flat” we can make that curve is yet to be seen.  At the moment, we are buying time to make the current escalating situation more manageable and until some more definitive management can be in place. It may not be working quickly or as much as we would like but we are having some influence by our combined efforts to reduce spread. Keep working on this, Canada.

We are still not able to determine with certainty just how many cases are really out there in the community because testing has been limited and mainly used to test those who are either at significant risk or seriously ill.  If this virus infects some people who develop few symptoms or even with symptoms that have been diagnosed as “flu”, there may be a cohort out there who have already had it or even have it now.  This is both encouraging and discouraging because it would mean that there are folks who have some immunity in the community, lowering the number of people at risk, but it also means that there are people who have been spreading this virus unknowingly. 

Availability of testing has been limited although we are doing better than many countries at testing high risk people. Testing resources are becoming more available and will ramp up in the next while. There will be a lot of folks who may have, or have had, this virus who are under the radar in terms of confirmation.  We don’t know how many who have had an Acute Respiratory Illness and have been told to isolate themselves and treat it symptomatically might have had COVID-19. But that, in some creepy way, is good news in that they are recovering without needing special medical care and they will be developing, we hope, antibodies to this virus.  The more people who have antibodies, the fewer in the population who can be infected or spread it.  Herd immunity is something that will help down the road. But it may be a while before that herd is big enough to affect the numbers.

Current tests for COVID-10 consist of a swab from the back of your nasopharynx that identifies specific COVID-19 RNA. It takes time to process and is not comfortable to obtain. Researchers have developed a rapid blood test that will show whether someone is infected or even has immunity from prior infection.  It is done with a finger prick of blood and results are available in 15 minutes.  The results would read as negative (not infected and not immune), having IgM antibodies (the first antibodies that are produced in response to an infection and suggest active infection) and IgG antibodies (the later immunological response we get when we develop some sort of longer lasting immunity to a particular infection).  Imagine if we could immediately test everyone presenting to a hospital, for example, like this.  It would allow us to isolate those who are infected immediately. We could also know what health care workers, store clerks, and other front line workers were already protected somewhat by their past exposure and antibody titres.  We could identify the silent asymptomatic carriers so they could isolate until they have recovered and not spread the virus to other vulnerable people.  Having this available will make a huge difference to understanding the prevalence of the virus in our communities. It will also help with management and control. It is on the horizon. Not sure when but it is something that provides me some hope. It might be the first significant tool to help manage this pandemic.  

I also think that we will likely come up with some sort of antiviral or medical management that can be safe and effective for helping to treat those with severe disease.  I don’t want to sound like “you know who” on this because it is a bit down the road, but I think it will eventually happen.  Medical researchers in the entire world are working ( I was going to say feverishly, but that might be a poor choice of words right now) to find effective medical management.

There will eventually be immunization for this virus.  It may take a year to get it on  the market and we will have to produce millions/billions of doses but, if combined with the antibody test, those who are not yet immune and vulnerable service workers could get the immunization first if supplies are limited. The caution is that, like influenza, this virus might change over time so keeping up with the specific viral mutations could be a challenge.  With any luck, the combination of acquired immunity and immunization will be able to bring some element of control. Widespread immunization is still months away but it will happen.   

Don’t take from this that I am underestimating the serious consequences that we might face soon as a result of the impending viral surge. However, in addition to heeding the warnings and scary projections, we should keep in mind that there will be advances that help us to get out from under this oppressive threat to our community health and our economy.

Prime Minister Trudeau, this morning, put it this way. “The best way we can work together is by staying apart.”

Stay the course, Canada. We can do this.