The spread of the new coronavirus has led to more COVID-19 cases and also new directives: wash your hands more, stop shaking hands, and consider “social distancing.”
The virus has so far resulted in one death in Canada, and 79 confirmed cases in the country as of March 10.
Globally, the virus has resulted in close to 110,000 cases and 3,809 deaths as of March 9, according to the World Health Organization.
So what does social distancing mean?
The U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC) defines it as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”
Canada’s public health agency’s guide for provincial and local health authorities defines social distancing as steps to “minimize close contact” with people in the community, such as “quarantine or self-isolation at the individual level” along with broader steps such as avoiding crowds.
So far, it has a chart with different recommendations for people with varying risks. For instance, for someone who’s had “close, unprotected contact” with a COVID-19 case, the recommendation is voluntary home quarantine.
Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has also advised social distancing for those travelling during March break. On Monday, public health officials advised Canadians to avoid cruise ship travel because close quarters on a ship are environments amenable to the rapid spread of the virus.
Experts say social distancing is akin to a strong suggestion for now.
“Essentially it means to try and prevent a congregation of large groups of people together in circumstances that might facilitate transmission,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Queen’s University.
This can include cancelling large meetings or shutting schools and colleges.
“The important thing to remember is it’s not quarantining people, it’s not forbidding them to be out and about,” Evans said.
How does it work?
The key to social distancing is to start early. As a medical expert with experience in pandemic planning, Evans says social distancing “works well when introduced early.”
“So if the epidemic gets hold and you get a lot of community spread, then social distancing begins to lose its effectiveness,” he said.
So far in Canada, there has been one instance of spread between provinces, with a confirmed B.C. case linked to a presumptive case in Alberta.
After B.C. announced the country’s first COVID-19 death on Monday — a man in his 80s with underlying health conditions at a North Vancouver care home — the province’s health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, emphasized it is up to the public to help stop the spread of the virus.
“Right now we want everybody to stay home if you’re sick,” she said.
“Even if you have the sniffles, you have a bit of a cold, your children are feeling a bit under the weather, keep them home from school, keep yourself home from work if you’re not feeling well. Even if you have no relationship to COVID-19 we want you to do that.”
Henry also stressed that people need to continue to frequently wash their hands, cover their mouth when they cough and avoid touching their faces.
Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and host of Super Awesome Science Show, says it’s a good idea to pair social distancing with personal hygiene, because it’s hard in some scenarios to stay six feet away from another person.
“The thing is that you can close schools, you can cancel concerts and conferences — can you close an airport? It’s pretty hard,” he said.
“There are things that you can do to promote social distancing or at least to make sure that it happens by cancellations, but you can’t prevent people from coming into contact with one another in all situations.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada does note in its guide online that social distancing measures can have “secondary consequences” for people, and as such, health authorities should consider the proportionality of any intervention against the “magnitude of the threat.”
When asked on Monday about who decides on quarantining an area, Health Minister Patty Hadju said the federal government works “very closely” with provinces and local municipalities on risk assessment related to any potential social distancing measures.
She also said the federal health agency has guidance online for communities to use “if they’re considering cancelling events or closing down public spaces.”
“That is largely at the discretion of the jurisdiction in which the event is being held, whether at a local level or provincial level,” she said.
Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam pointed out every level of government has its own public health laws “which allow them to enact any number of this range of public health measures.”
“You can’t blanket a whole geographic area without really paying attention to the details on the ground,” she said.
“The key is at the local level, they need to understand the epidemiological situation, if you like, and then act according to that data.”
While social distancing measures, for now, appear to be recommendations for both individuals and communities, Evans says the possibility of “legally binding” measures exists.
“I can tell you from discussions that I’ve been privy to, both in my local region as well as provincially, that the trigger on this is very, very light,” he said.
“I strongly suspect that many public health officials, if they’re faced with the clear, unequivocal evidence of community-based transmission in some regions or local areas in Canada, will induce some sort of legally binding social distancing processes.”
Either way, whether it’s recommended or mandated, keeping people apart in social settings can lower the chance of spread.
“If we can keep people at least a reasonable distance apart in most settings, the chance of it spreading from person to person is greatly reduced,” Dr. Brett Belchetz told Global News Radio 640 on Monday.
According to him, the chance that many people at some point will be exposed to the virus is “very good,” but the idea is to prevent mass exposure at once.
“If everybody gets exposed all at once, if there’s very rapid spread, that’s how we overwhelm our hospitals,” he said.
“The more that we can have things like social distancing that can slow down the spread of this, the more we enable the actual uptick in cases to slow down and the more we enable our hospital system and our health care system to be able to ride this out.”
Some Canadian companies have already started asking employees to self-quarantine upon their return from overseas trips. For instance, Manulife Financial Corp. told The Canadian Press last week that it is requiring employees to observe a 14-day self-quarantine if they or anyone they live with has travelled to China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy.
Similarly, Home Depot has put a hold on employee travel to and from Asia and Italy until further notice.
Countries like China and Italy, two hotspots for the virus at the moment, are currently trying to rein in outbreaks with quarantine and lockdown measures.
In a little over two weeks, the number of recorded cases of the new coronavirus has surged to more than 10,000 cases in Italy, where more than 600 people had died as of Tuesday, making it the worst-hit country in the world after China.
The Italian government passed an official decree on Monday, ordering people to stay at least an arm’s length from each other, with the government saying bars and restaurants can only remain open if they guarantee customers remain a metre apart.
The U.K. is also issuing public health messaging on social distancing, with a March 4 government blog post suggesting that self-isolation might not be enough to counter the spread of the virus.
The British government’s action plan “recognizes that as we start to see more cases in the U.K., and more widespread community transmission of the virus, further measures to reduce the contact people have with each other may be needed,” the post said.
— With files by Reuters, Global News staff