Everything you need to know about COVID-19

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explains everything from the symptoms and treatments to whether we should cancel any upcoming travel plans.
March 6, 2020 2:36 p.m. EST
March 11, 2020 12:00 a.m. EST
The information provided on the show is for general information purposes only. If you have a health problem, medical emergency, or a general health question, you should contact a physician or other qualified health care provider for consultation, diagnosis and/or treatment. Under no circumstances should you attempt self-diagnosis or treatment based on anything you have seen on the show.Public health officials say there are 51 confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19 in Canada (at time of posting), found in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and, a first presumptive case in Alberta. However, families all over the country are gearing up for spring break. But with the virus spreading, should we be putting a pause on travel, both home and abroad?Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explains everything you need to know about travelling during the current COVID-19 crisis, including how to spot symptoms, how to prepare, and what to do if you do contract it.


A lot of travel might usually be happening around this time of year because of spring break, but not so much this year because of COVID-19. Flights, conferences, and events are being cancelled left and right. Outbreaks might lead to exposures which in turn might lead to illness or quarantine. The situation is still evolving, so you probably shouldn’t be booking any unnecessary travel right now.


The risk of contracting COVID-19 through air travel is low, but not zero, and it’s definitely higher if you’re seated within six-feet of someone coughing or sneezing. The longer your flight, and the more infectious the person, the higher the risk, but recently there were no cases after a 15-hour flight of 350 passengers with a symptomatic index case on board.Cruising carries the additional heightened risk of lengthier periods of exposure and surface transmission. Also, airlines and cruises might prevent you from boarding if you have respiratory symptoms, and so if you have a simple cold with a fever, you may be refused passage. At this point, the bigger question has to do with the unpredictability of the outbreak and possible last minute changes or cancellations imposed by new hotspots, and even the potential of travellers enduring arbitrary quarantines.[video_embed id='1909853']RELATED: Should you still travel this March break?[/video_embed]


For an infected and symptomatic person, there likely isn’t a way to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the common flu as both lead to fever, cough, and shortness of breath. It also appears that a large percentage of people infected with COVID-19 don’t experience much in the way of symptoms, and some don’t experience any at all. The symptoms may start to manifest within as little as two days (or as far out as 14 days) from exposure.Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) says there are four main COVID-19 symptoms to watch out for: fever, cough, difficulty breathing and pneumonia.


You can potentially be a carrier of the virus and not even know it. This isn’t just because some people are wholly asymptomatic, but because it likely takes somewhere up to two weeks for someone infected to start experiencing symptoms. This is called the incubation period, however we do know a person is infectious during that time.Since it takes time for some symptoms to appear, the Canadian government has asked that if you have travelled to Hubei province, China, or Iran in the last 14 days, limit your contact with others for 14 days, starting the day you began your journey to Canada.The following steps will help to reduce contact with others:
  • Stay home (self-isolate)
  • Avoid individuals with chronic conditions, compromised immune systems and older adults
  • Avoid having visitors to your home
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for 20 seconds
  • Cover your mouth and nose with your arm when coughing and sneezing


Right now, the treatment is just supportive care. This means that there’s no specific treatment for coronavirus beyond experimental therapies, and instead it’s about managing symptoms and complications.


At this point in Canada, people who suspect they have symptoms of the virus should call their local public health units to explore the process for testing and instruction. If not in any medical distress, this process will likely involve staying home in self-isolation and trying your best to wash their hands regularly, disinfect common surfaces, sneeze and cough into your sleeve, and if available, wear a mask to prevent further spread. Drinking plenty of fluids and trying to get as much rest and sleep as possible is also advised.


Even though flu season is almost over, it’s unknown whether this virus will run the same course. It would be nice if this virus was susceptible to heat and would degrade more quickly on warmer surfaces, but of course you have the issue that summer in the Northern hemisphere is winter in the Southern. And if we look to other coronaviruses, like the one involved with an infection called MERS, it spread in Saudi Arabia during the heat of their summer.


In actuality, using a medical mask to avoid contracting COVID-19 isn’t effective. Using them is more likely to increase your risk of contracting COVID-19 than it is to prevent it because people wearing face masks are far more likely to touch their faces. Masks are designed to keep respiratory droplets in, rather than out, and so the people who should be wearing masks are people who themselves are sick and symptomatic. If healthy people buy, stockpile, and wear masks, we might not have enough to go around for the sick people and health care workers who should be wearing them.


Preparation wise, it may be useful to check the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's list of travel advisories to see if your destination is among those where they recommend the cancellation of non-essential travel. If it’s not, preparation involves much of what you should be doing here: do your best to stop touching your face, wash your hands frequently (for 20 seconds at least) and carry hand sanitizer as backup, and try to avoid close contact with people who are sick.[video_embed id='1911337']RELATED: How to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak in Canada[/video_embed]


Every country will be enacting their own measures to screen travellers. Here in Canada, signs are up at all international airports and enhanced screening questions are being administered at customs. If an arriving traveller shows signs of infection, border services are instructed to contact a Public Health Agency of Canada quarantine officer for further assessment and management.


Given what we’ve seen so far with COVID-19 in terms of how infectious it is and the fact that many of those infected have mild or even no symptoms, its spread is almost inevitable. Some experts predict that within the year, between 40 and 70 per cent of the planet’s population will have been infected. Of course, most will experience only mild illness, but that’s a small consolation for those at higher risk for more serious and even deadly courses.So, it’s not about panicking, it’s about preparing, especially given we’re likely 12-18 months at least away from a vaccine. Things you can do now include not touching your face, frequent hand-washing, and regularly disinfecting your commonly touched surfaces like desks, doorknobs and cellphones.You can also get a flu shot to decrease your odds of needing to go to hospital and risk co-infection. You shouldn’t go to work if you’re feeling ill, you should cover your mouths with tissues or elbows when you cough or sneeze, and you should ensure you have a few weeks of food, medications, and toiletries on hand in your home so that if infected, you don’t need to go out and risk exposure to others.  For those in positions of authority, consider means to enable more work from home and to not require sick notes – these would force employees to head to physicians’ offices and risk exposing all who wait and go there. Do your part to reduce the speed of spread so that the healthcare system doesn’t rapidly become overburdened.[video_embed id='1914313']BEFORE YOU GO: These are your rights at work amid COVID-19 concerns[/video_embed]