For many, isolation and physical distancing during the coronavirus pandemic has meant weeks of movie nights and home-cooked meals with those you live with.
But for Canadians who live alone, it can be tempting to want human connection in this tough period. For some, this means seeing others in the same boat.
According to 2016 census data from Statistics Canada, there are four million Canadians who live alone, representing about 15 per cent of the population.
There’s no doubt that it’s difficult to remain solitary during the COVID-19 pandemic, but looking for social distancing loopholes could compromise the safety of yourself and others, said Todd Coleman, an assistant professor in health sciences and epidemiologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.
“It just takes one person to visit another person who just for some reason relaxes their ideas to visit another person and to get that chain going,” he said. “We know that the virus is very easily transmittable. So the idea is to cut off any potential transmission chains.”
The person you may want to go visit has likely gone to a grocery store in the last two weeks and to see them would increase the risk of picking up the infection from an asymptomatic person, he said.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty that we need to be aware of. I know it’s not the same, but trying to facilitate online support is really important at this time, especially for mental health,” he said.
Any physical connection that is less than two metres away from another person right now is not advisable and it’s important to follow guidelines outlined by the federal ministry of health, he said.
However, while it’s important to understand it would be a risk, if you’re living alone it could be permissible to only see one other person if you know where they have been, said Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.
But it’s not an infallible approach as you can’t be sure what the other person may have picked up after a grocery store visit, he said.
Janes recommends engaging in social-distancing walks if you live alone, and potentially visiting a single person and keeping a distance while with them.
Joining another household if you live alone
Some reasonable exceptions could be if a family is removing a loved-one from a retirement home due to safety concerns, said Coleman.
As long-term care homes across the country continue to experience rapid COVID-19 outbreaks that have led to deaths, considering bringing an elderly loved one back home isn’t unusual, he said.
“You’re still taking the chance though of creating a transmission chain by bringing someone into your household for at least the first few weeks,” he said.
Coleman says if you are trying to find loopholes concerning physical distancing, you’re likely not the only one, which could mean the efforts to prevent transmission would then collapse.
“Considering how easy it is to pass this on, I’d be very hesitant to even attempt to take something like that into consideration,” he said.
But deciding to move in with someone else who also lives alone is similar to a couple living together and could work if it’s decided that only one person will leave to get groceries, to reduce risk, he said.
“The idea is to minimize the possibility of transmission on more than one level,” he said.
Beyond a scenario of moving in with one other person, he recommended relying on technology to connect with others and use that as a way to prioritize mental health.
Weighing mental health concerns
As we endure another month of physical distancing and isolation, it may be an important time to weigh the long-term impact on older people who live alone, said Kerry Bowman, an assistant professor and bioethicist at the University of Toronto.
“If you’ve got elderly, conscientious people who have not been in physical proximity with anyone in five weeks… and they have a friend who is no doubt as isolated as they are, I cannot imagine what would be wrong,” he said.
There are risks to leaving someone without another person around for months, he said.
“I think that people who really find isolation really difficult, moving in together, if you can do it safely, is a reasonable thing to do,” he said.
“But again, I would only say it’s got to be very limited and they really have to know the person they’re interacting with.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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