St. Patrick’s Day is Tuesday and while you might think that doesn’t matter anymore, given the coronavirus pandemic, I’m not so sure.
Full disclosure: on Friday evening I had dinner at a restaurant in Toronto and then we went to a bar for a few hours.
That’s because I wasn’t really clear on the rules for social distancing. On Friday, B.C. health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said it was still safe “to go out, to go shopping, to go to restaurants.”
But the advice is rapidly shifting to: stay home unless you absolutely need to be out.
On Monday Ontario requested that all bars and restaurants close, except those that do take-out, following a similar announcement in Quebec over the weekend.
Canada has confirmed more than 400 cases of the novel coronavirus, with four deaths. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam has raised the risk level associated with the virus from low to “serious.”
“Our window to flatten the curve of the epidemic is narrow,” she said on Sunday.
She advised postponing all non-essential travel outside of Canada, telling anyone coming to back self-isolate for 14 days.
Over the weekend, however, young Canadians were still out drinking in large numbers.
On Saturday, several Queen’s University students partying for St. Patrick’s Day told a Global News reporter they weren’t concerned about COVID-19.
One student said she was taking part in the festivities despite having a compromised immune system. “I'm still only 21, but I'm not even worried because I just take supplements and I self-medicate so it’s fine,” she said.
Bars and brunch spots in many cities, including Toronto, remained bustling over the weekend.
We may not all have been on the same page before, but we need to start taking this seriously right now.
In an open letter on March 15, addressed to all levels of government, infectious disease doctors from the University of Toronto called for stricter social distancing policies to be put in place. The doctors said all non-essential stores and gathering spots, including schools and universities, daycares, churches, parties, and theatres should close for now.
“If we fail to act appropriately and aggressively an opportunity will be lost,” the letter said.
The virus is spreading exponentially
Dr. Greta Bauer, professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Western Ontario, said seeing photos of young people partying is like watching “an epidemiological horror movie.”
Bauer said that many people, including some medical professionals, don’t understand how the exponential growth of COVID-19 transmission works.
She said if it takes three days for coronavirus cases to double, which is one estimate, a new case on March 15 means creating 32 cases by the end of the month and more than 32,700 cases by the end of April. If you flip that, preventing a case on March 15 means preventing more than 32,700 cases by the end of April. Slowing down the rate at which cases are doubling is also key to flattening the curve, she said. If you don’t practise social distancing, you could speed up the rate at which the virus doubles, and stress out healthcare resources.
Why some young people aren't concerned
Bauer said young people are clinging to the idea that their demographic is unlikely to die and forgetting about the potential long-term effects of the coronavirus, including cancers and lung damage. People are also latching onto numbers from China suggesting that 80 percent of cases were “mild.” But Bauer said mild just means people who weren’t at risk of dying, and that even 20 percent of cases being critical is a huge number.
She said people find these messages “perversely comforting” and use them to justify continuing to go out.
“They’re ignoring the role that that kind of behaviour plays in literally killing other people,” she said. “Their rationale is implying that some people’s deaths might be less important than others.”
You can transmit the virus without symptoms
Dr. Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, said people are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days if they’ve had any risk of exposure to COVID-19 (including travelling) because that’s believed to be how long it takes for symptoms to show up, if they are going to show up.
But it’s also possible to transmit the virus to another person when you don’t have any symptoms, which is why social distancing is so important.
British actor Idris Elba said he tested positive for the coronavirus but didn't have any symptoms.
Both Carroll and Bauer said experts don’t know how common it is for people to have the virus without symptoms, which is why it’s better to err on the side of caution.
Social distancing could last months and won't be effective right away
Carroll said even if we practice perfect social distancing behaviour, we aren’t going to see the benefits of that right away.
That's in part because some of the new cases we'll find in the next couple of weeks will simply be a result of more testing. And because it could take up to two weeks for symptoms to show up, cases of people who were infected pre-social distancing will continue to pop up.
“Things are going to look way worse in two weeks than they did today,” Carroll said, adding it’s likely that social distancing mandates will extend beyond the first week of April, possibly for months.
Try "respiratory monogamy"
So what can one do while in social distancing? Is it OK to see anyone at all?
Bauer said you can consider “respiratory monogamy,” meaning have one or two individuals to hang out with at a one of your homes. If you’re a family with one kid, you can pair up with another family with a child, so they can play together. The idea is, you choose a couple of people with whom to share air space.
She said avoid bouncing from group to group made up of different people.
Carroll said even if you have another family over, keep physical space between each other and practise good hand washing hygiene. Pour your own drinks.
If we were to keep spaces like coffee shops open, Bauer said they would need to be redesigned to ensure that there are at least a couple of metres between people and between tables.
“We need to put that kind of distance if we’re going to be out together,” she said.
Bauer also said we may need to reexamine how we view socializing and find ways to hang out with friends while maintaining physical separation.
She said we should be expecting this new world order to continue for four to six months.