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Answering some of the frequently asked questions about COVID-19

With COVID-19 now affecting the lives of Canadians on so many levels, people across the country are seeking answers to numerous important questions they have about the novel coronavirus. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

What are the current rules and guidelines for physical distancing?

As provinces begin to relax physical distancing measures on family gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, they'll be doing so at their own pace. That means the directives will often vary from province to province.

Here's what provinces across Canada are currently recommending for gatherings:

ONTARIO — Avoid visiting friends and stay two metres away from anyone outside your immediate household. However, starting today some restrictions are being relaxed, including allowing house cleaners, babysitters, and maintenance services. Organized public events of more than five people indoors or outdoors (including in private dwellings) are still banned, though gatherings of 10 are allowed for funerals.

QUEBEC — Indoor gatherings are not allowed except for members of the same household.

B.C. — Avoid crowded places; all in-person gatherings of any size are strongly discouraged.

ALBERTA — Only allow essential visitors into your home and keep the visits short; do not visit people most vulnerable to COVID-19; no gathering of more than 15 people is allowed in one indoor location, though up to 50 can now gather outdoors.

SASKATCHEWAN — Gatherings are limited to no more than 10 people, inside and outside, within an extended household group only, and while maintaining a minimum distance of two metres between people. Families or friends must remain consistent and can not visit different families or friends every day.

MANITOBA — Avoid group gatherings, outings or events; avoid having visitors in your home; avoid having non-essential workers in your home.

NEW BRUNSWICK — Two-household bubble; outdoor public gatherings with physical distancing of 10 or fewer people are allowed; indoor public gatherings with physical distancing of 10 or fewer people are allowed for in-person religious services, weddings and funerals.

NEWFOUNDLAND — two-household bubble in place; gatherings at funerals, burials and weddings are restricted to no more than 10 people, as long as physical distancing is maintained.

NOVA SCOTIA — no non-essential gatherings of more than five people, two metres apart.

PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — indoor gatherings of more than five people are prohibited; outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people from different households are prohibited; physical distancing of two metres still in play.

The novel coronavirus can live in water, but is it infectious?

Whether it's a beach getaway or a dip in a community pool, re-introducing water-based activities to daily life could be a lot more worrisome this year. The issue being how safe will going for a swim be with the COVID-19 pandemic lingering into the summer months?

While experts say the novel coronavirus can live in water for hours to days, the risk of actually picking it up from swimming is low. They say the real danger of infection is from people who will be flocking to those areas once they've reopened.

"I'm not saying stay away from beaches, I'm saying stay away from crowds,'' says Colin Furness, a professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School for Public Health. "If the beach is crowded, stay away. Furness adds that  people "do need to understand that yes, the virus will live in water.''

Living in water and being infectious in water are different things, though. And experts seem torn on what that means for COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website "there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas, or water play areas."

Curtis Suttle, an expert in ocean microbiology and immunology at the University of British Columbia, agrees, saying any amount of virus that's shed in the water likely won't result in spreading the infection.

Furness, however, says there could be a chance a person might get COVID-19 from swimming, if the virus gets in their intestinal tract after being swallowed. At the same time he also stresses that the risk level of that is likely very low — and the severity of it is still unclear.

He adds that an outdoor pool — provided it's not crowded — would be the safest swimming environment because chlorine used to treat water can kill the coronavirus "after about 15 minutes." Heat from the sun also acts to limit the virus's power, and it won't remain viable for long on concrete pool decks like it can on other softer surfaces.

Suttle, meanwhile, says lakes and oceans, while missing chlorine, offer their own benefits. There's a dilution effect due to the sheer volume of water, and he notes that UV deactivates the virus "really quickly."

Are COVID 19 mutations cause for alarm?

A recent study sparked some worry when it revealed a mutation "of urgent concern" in the virus responsible for COVID-19. But experts say more research is needed to determine what that really means.

The preliminary, non peer-reviewed study from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico indicated a COVID-19 strand containing a specific mutation — on the spike protein D614G — is emerging as the dominant form of the virus.

The study, which analyzed data from coronavirus patients in England, also suggested the mutation could be making the virus more infectious. The problem, experts say, is that the research doesn't reveal any proof of that.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch is an infectious diseases specialist based at Toronto General Hospital and a faculty member at the University of Toronto. He says there's really no evidence from the study "that this particular mutation is causing the virus to be more transmissible than other genetic variants of the virus."

"Could a mutation (with that effect) happen? Sure. Will it happen? Who knows," he says. 

Mutations are common in nature, whether in viruses or any other living organism. Some can make a virus more potent, while others might make it less effective, but most just don't do anything.

"Viruses mutate, that's what they do, they just change over time," says BC Children's Hospital clinical researcher Dr. Srinivas Murthy, who adds he's not concerned with the findings from the U.S. research.

"Truthfully, I have no takeaways from it. ... We have no data from this (study) that says the transmissibility is different and we have no data from this that says the severity is any different."

While mutations can potentially become problematic in terms of vaccine development, experts say there's no evidence D614G will force researchers to abandon any work that's already being done — and those problems can usually be solved, anyway.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2020.


The Canadian Press