What’s New in COVID – July 17

What’s New in COVID

I spend lots of time – maybe too much – tracking this invisible but deadly threat, compiling reliable information I hope will help keep us safe. I’m careful, in this space, not to offer my own projections, and I encourage you to do your own research.

We should rely on advice from public health officials, based on a body of evidence they have at a point in time, while keeping in mind that this sometimes takes a while to emerge. Only after it was well established that the virus is spread by those without symptoms, for example, did health officials encourage mask use, and it was longer still before they proposed mandating masks.

We learn more each week. Here’s some of what’s known and not known at this point.

Transmission

This virus is very easily spread, especially through the mouth and nose. Initially it was thought the threat was from large droplets travelling several feet through coughs and sneezes. It’s now agreed that smaller particles, emitted through talking or simply breathing, can linger in the air for a few hours, possibly infecting those who enter the particle cloud. Hence the importance of masks, primarily to stop most particles from getting into others’ space.

Outdoor vs Indoor Risk

Even a very slight breeze can disperse particles containing COVID. That makes the risk of outdoor transmission much less than it would be for the same situation indoors. But as you enjoy the lower risk of getting together outdoors, remember that precautions are still necessary. Being within six feet of others not wearing a mask is still risky, as is shared contact with utensils and other surfaces.

Mutation

Like other viruses, COVID-19 can mutate. There are thought to be two main strains: the original one from Wuhan and a second “European” strain, caused by changes to the virus as it travelled to Europe and from there to North America. It is suspected that this second strain is less deadly but more easily transmitted – all the more reason to take every precaution to contain the spread.

Trends in Transmission

Initially, the virus was transmitted mostly through travellers. As travel restrictions and mandatory quarantine kicked in, that shifted to community transmission – quickly spreading to long term care homes, with extremely tragic results.

Community spread also targeted front line workers and the poor, exposing the extent of social inequality. Those in crowded living and working conditions, with jobs that expose them to large numbers of people, are many times more likely to be infected with COVID. These tend, disproportionately, to be women and members of racialized communities. Toronto Public Health has publicly identified these trends, despite the risk of further stigmatizing communities, in the hope that identifying risk factors makes it easier to mitigate them.

Another notable trend is the increasing percentage of new cases among younger people. For the week ending July 11, 43% of new cases in Toronto were among those aged 20-39. As we move closer to Stage 3 re-openings, this is important data to watch as younger people are, as a group, both more likely to ignore distancing guidelines and to spread the virus because they don’t know they have it.

Children and COVID

Although there are examples of children becoming seriously ill and even dying from the virus, it appears they are less likely to contract it and, if they do, are less likely to show symptoms. But as we prepare to re-open schools, it remains very unclear how readily children can transmit the virus to adults.

Some Other COVID Unknowns

When will a vaccine be available to the public? How effective will the vaccine be? If you have had COVID, are you immune and, if so, for how long? How many people have had COVID without knowing it? What are the long-term health effects? Is COVID a vascular (blood vessel) rather than a respiratory illness, and how might that effect diagnosis and treatment?

The Importance of Strong Leadership and Human Behaviour

As is painfully obvious from comparisons with the U.S., it’s fortunate our political leaders are working together, relying on expert advice rather than ideology as we confront the greatest threat of our lifetimes. We can also be proud of our own behaviors to contain the virus. As places like restaurants open up, it will be more important than ever to keep that up. We’ve seen what happens if we don’t.

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