TORONTO — As Canada’s total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 tops 450, health-care professionals are being inundated with questions about how the virus spreads, who’s at risk, and how people can protect themselves.
To sort through some of the noise, several doctors answered some of the most frequently asked questions about the ongoing pandemic.
Can you contract COVID-19 more than once?
There have been media reports in China, Japan, and South Korea about individuals who had the virus and eventually tested negative for it and were released, only to test positive for it again a short time later.
Scientists in those countries have speculated that testing errors could be to blame, either for a false negative that said the patients were free of the virus or for the positive result that signalled its reoccurrence.
Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, a family physician and medical researcher, said it’s really too soon to know whether an individual can contract COVID-19 more than once, and how quickly that can happen.
“We actually don’t know. We don’t know how long-lasting the immunity is to it,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday. “These viruses have the tendency to morph and change.”
In fact, it’s still not even clear if people develop an immediate immunity to COVID-19, as is typically the case with other virus strains, such as the flu.
“So just like any other virus, there’s the possibility that it could shift or drift. Just minor changes could change it from a once mild infection to a more severe infection,” she explained.
How do you know if you have a cold, the flu, or COVID-19?
Those who are infected with COVID-19 may have few to no symptoms, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. If symptoms are present, they can easily be mistaken for a common cold or the flu because of their similarities.
According to the health agency, the main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, coughing, difficulty breathing, and pneumonia in both lungs. In severe cases, the illness can even result in death.
Gorfinkel said clinicians can’t distinguish between the illnesses based on symptoms alone. She said they can all present the same way, which is why the patient’s travel history or history of exposure to the virus is so important in determining whether someone might have COVID-19.
“We do not have the facilities or the tests to test absolutely everybody, so that history of travel if you’re basically otherwise well, that’s a critical part of it,” she explained.
Who should be tested and when should they be tested?
With hospital emergency rooms overwhelmed and family physicians urging patients to call ahead, Dr. Marla Shapiro, CTV News Medical Specialist, said there are only certain groups of people who should be tested.
Infants under the age of six months who are ill should be assessed in an emergency room, she said.
Shapiro said anyone under the age of 60 who is exhibiting some flu-like symptoms and doesn’t have a fever should not be tested and should just self-isolate for 14 days instead. If their symptoms worsen and they develop a fever or have difficulty breathing, then they should seek medical assistance.
“The moderate and not-so severe, you can either speak to telehealth [or] speak to your own family physician,” she told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.
Lastly, individuals over the age of 60 who may have underlying medical illness or a fever should be tested at an assessment unit, Shapiro said. Only those who are having difficulty breathing or are in medical distress should go to the hospital.
Can I still gather with friends in small groups?
With government and health officials providing various guidance on what is considered a large gathering to avoid, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist, said Canadians should rely on common sense.
“Don’t gather in large groups and keep your distance from others,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday. “I’m sure a couple of people is just fine, but let’s keep it small.”
Gorfinkel and said people should just aim to avoid unnecessary contact with individuals to prevent further spread in their communities.
“Stop the spread because so many people have mild symptoms. That’s the problem,” she said. “They’re the source where the majority of cases are going to come from.”
Do previous immunizations, such as the flu shot, help protect against COVID-19?
While there have been suggestions that a regular flu shot can help protect individuals against COVID-19, Bogoch said that’s not true.
“They do not protect against this particular infection. They do not protect against COVID-19,” he said.
However, Bogoch stressed that vaccinations such as the flu shot are still extremely important for optimizing health.
“We should be up to date on all our routine vaccinations, our pneumonia vaccines, our flu vaccines, our regular vaccines, so that we can ensure that our health is optimized in case we come down with an infection,” he said.
Should people avoid Advil and other anti-inflammatories?
For individuals who suspect they may have COVID-19 and they’re suffering from a low-grade fever or another type of pain, Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious specialist, recommends they don’t take anti-inflammatory medication.
He said they should avoid Advil, Motrin, Aleve, Ibuprofen, and Aspirin if they think they may have contracted the new coronavirus.
“We’re not entirely sure why, but it seems to trigger some change in the way the immune system reacts to this infection,” he told CTV News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme on Tuesday.
Instead, Sharkawy said patients should take Tylenol or acetaminophen if they’re experiencing pain during their illness.
Is it possible the virus could get out of control in Canada?
With countries in Europe, such as Italy, Spain and France, implementing strict lockdown measures to control the rapidly increasing number of cases in their countries, some people have expressed concern that could happen in Canada too.
Bogoch said Canada is still one to two weeks behind Europe in the spread of COVID-19 so he said there is a possibility the country could face a similar experience. However, he said there’s still time for Canada to prevent that outcome.
“This is completely dependent on how we act now,” he said. “We’ve heard from every provincial health authority, we’ve heard from federal health authorities on what to do. We know what social distancing is, we know what we’re supposed to do, and now it’s time to do it.”
Bogoch said Canada could take a similar route to Japan or South Korea – two countries that have managed to largely contain the spread of the virus and decrease their number of confirmed cases.
“If we act together, if we roll up our sleeves, and do what needs to be done, we’ll take a different path,’ Bogoch said.
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