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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.

How risky is carpooling during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Health experts generally advise against sharing a vehicle during the pandemic. However, determining the probability of infection from carpooling isn't so clear cut.

"If the person you're driving works in an office with one other person versus somebody who works at a meat processing facility, the risk in that car is going to be dramatically different," said Craig Jenne, a microbiologist and infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary. "If you stop to get takeout food, well now you've increased the risk in the car as well.

Zahid Butt, an infectious disease expert and professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, says it's best to be cautious, regardless of the scenario.

If the person doesn't live with you, you probably shouldn't drive around with them.

"Most of the cases that we're seeing now are asymptomatic, so you don't know whether they have the virus," Butt said. "If a person is sitting in the car next to you, there is a chance (of spreading it)."

Butt and Jenne both say the duration of the trip doesn't necessarily matter, though the longer you spend with an infected person the more likely your chances of contracting the virus.

Allocating the passenger to the back seat also won't help much if the distance between the people in the vehicle is still less than two metres.

Jenne says face masks, when worn by both the driver and the passenger, can minimize risk if you do decide to travel in a car with others.

As for taxis and ride-sharing services, Butt says it's probably best to avoid those during the pandemic. Maintaining a physical distance is still the best approach, the experts say. 

COVID-19 cases are going down, but is it safe yet to visit grandparents?

The short answer is no. As society slowly begins to reopen and provinces introduce new rules for family gatherings, health experts say now's not the time to start visiting our most at-risk sector of the population.

"The concern with grandparents is that we know that older people are more vulnerable to having severe outcomes with COVID-19," said Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

"So although in the community the overall risk of transmission may be relatively low, we're going to want to be abundantly cautious when it comes to interacting with vulnerable people like our grandparents."

While Canada is reporting overall downward trends when it comes to new COVID-19 cases, Ontario recently saw a slight jump before numbers started going down again.

Tuite says that's evidence the pandemic is still in its first wave, at least in Ontario, and residents there will need to take a more cautious approach.

But even in other provinces, like New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, which have recently introduced two-household bubbles, Tuite urges people to be "aware of the risk'' in including grandparents in their social circles and minimizing it whenever possible.

"We know the risk of transmission indoors is higher than outdoors. ... So if you could meet outside, that would be ideal. And again, keeping our distance."

Tuite adds that sometimes it comes down to making a calculated risk assessment.

"In different locations that haven't seen cases in weeks, you might be a little bit more comfortable interacting with grandparents than in the (Greater Toronto Area) where we know that there's still significant community transmission happening."

Are there any dangers to wearing face masks outdoors?

With summer heat on the way, health experts say it's best to ditch the mask when outdoors.

Soaring temperatures and thick humid air can cause breathing difficulties for many people — add a cloth face mask and those problems can worsen.

"When you're breathing through a mask you're having to work a little bit harder to breathe in the first place, especially depending on how thick your mask is,'' says Dr. David Price, chair of the department of family medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton. "And then the other thing is you're rebreathing some of your air, so it's heating it up a little bit.

"So you've got not only the heat on the outside, but now you've got the heat inside the mask too.''

Price says those with asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease or emphysema are at further risk of breathing problems when high temperatures, humidity and air pollution converge to make the air more dense.

Kids, who are typically at greater risk than adults for dehydration and heat illness, should also avoid wearing masks outdoors, "unless they are sick and you're going to be in close contact with somebody else," Price added.

Wearing a mask in humid conditions can also cause more problems than just difficulty breathing.

"It's really unhealthy to wear a mask for prolonged periods because it collects bacteria and bacteria proliferate," says Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. "And the warmer and more moist the environment is, the happier the bacteria are to multiply.

Furness says masks should be reserved for indoor use. In potentially crowded indoor areas without air circulation, like a non-air conditioned public transit, he suggests wearing the mask during the ride then taking it off once you get back outdoors.

How can we use public green spaces safely during the COVID pandemic?

Urban planners say they weren't surprised by the images they recently saw of a Toronto park packed with people dangerously flaunting physical distancing protocols.

Nina-Marie Lister, the graduate program director of urban planning at Toronto's Ryerson University, says the scenes from Trinity Bellwoods Park illustrated how much we need green spaces in populated cities, especially now during a global pandemic.

As long as public parks are one of the few options available for people to enjoy the outdoors in a densely populated city, they're going to get crowded. The trick is learning how to use them safely.

Jason Gilliland is the director of the urban development program at Western University in London, Ont. He says one option to help ensure physical distancing in a park setting is to paint lines or circles in the grass — as has now been done at Trinty Bellwoods -- so people can have a visual bubble that's two metres away from anyone else.

He says other short-term solutions might include opening up more roadways to pedestrians, or converting some parking lots into temporarily green spaces.

Lister suggests a time-zoned approach, where neighbouring apartment buildings would have their own set hours to use a specific park. Keeping parks as a space to walk through rather than congregate might also work.

Lawrence Frank, a public health and urban planning expert at the University of British Columbia, says creating a "social norm,'' where it's understood that gathering in groups is not acceptable, is another potential solution to help steer people away from unhealthy behaviour.

While some experts believe fines could work, Frank says that type of enforcement is very hard to regulate.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020.


The Canadian Press