Chris MacLean's picture
COVID-19 preventative measures
Posted on Feb 27, 2020

Posted 27 Feb 2010 (updated 3 Mar 2020)

Panic continues to build around the new coronavirus. It has dominated headlines around the world and has affected millions of livelihoods, particularly any that depend on travel.

Coronaviruses are responsible for illnesses that range from the common cold to the more serious respiratory syndromes, and while the milder (common) flu viruses result in hundreds of thousands of deaths every year (although fewer than 0.1 percent of people they infect), the fatality rate of this coronavirus is still considered low. This strain (SARS-CoV-2) causes respiratory illness that can be severe in some cases and mild in others. The alarm comes "not despite that low fatality rate, but because of it," as one report explains.

The speed at which the first cases spread throughout the city of Wuhan and then outward to the rest of China quickly overwhelmed China's health care system is a big concern for global safety.  

At less than 2 percent, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19 or COronaVI Disease identified in 2019) has a fatality rate that was "exponentially lower than most outbreaks that make global news", but that rate is increasing as as more elderly people become infected. So how does it spread and why the panic?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)​, the virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It has also been determined that people over the age of 80 are most at risk for critical respiratory symptoms which lead to death.

​Community spread, the term used when multiple levels of contact come into play, is most prevalent when transmission is somewhat invisible droplets can land in the eyes, mouths or noses, or inhaled into the lungs of people who are nearby), especially when symptoms are slow to present or mild enough that the individual is not diagnosed quickly. In other words, infected people may be in the community, exposing others without knowing they are infected. This is why a direct link to an infected person cannot be easily identified. The first case of community spread was announced today in California. The patient had been hospitalized for days before the diagnosis because symptoms "did not fit" the existing criteria set out by the CDC.

Concern over community spread is officially the main reason politicians and governments are advising people to prepare for a pandemic response by stockpiling food and medicine to last up to a month, but I suspect the real reason is to deflect risk (cover themselves from lawsuits) as well as simply to give people something to do or focus on. After all, when the media incessantly asks the same question "what can people do," it's easy to understand when spokespeople get frustrated at providing the same answer over and over, but this new advice coming out of Ottawa to stockpile food, water and medicine seems an excessive response. Although preparing for a potential global pandemic can't hurt, such advice panders to uninformed fears.

While we should all have "crisis kits" at home, as a standard measure of precaution against unexpected quarantine requirement or other crises, there are much more responsible measures that should be taken – right now – today and every day. 

Preventative Measures

What should individuals do to protect themselves from "community spread"? Thanks to its transmission pattern, the answer is deceptively simple. So much so, that the message tends to be dismissed by the general public looking for more extreme measures.

  1. Wash your hands (with soap) frequently.
  2. Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
  3. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, especially when in a public space.
  4. Stay home if you're feeling sick.
  5. Avoid close contact with people by practicing "safe-distancing" guidelines (stay 2m apart).

This same advice came from battling the SARS virus outbreak of 2003 which had a much higher fatality rate ranging from 0 to 40 percent depending on susceptibility factors. Lessons from the SARS outbreak in Toronto identified that "strict adherence" to implementing the above precautions was critical to containment of the disease and the restoration of safe conditions for medical staff and patients and prevention for the general public.

A 2014 research study into facial touching concluded that the amount of touching increases when people appear to be under stress, making advisory number 1 and 2 all the more important.

Common sense tells us that if we are feeling at all unwell, stay away from anyone with low immunity, including otherwise healthy elderly or hospital patients – and that applies all the time, not just during a pandemic.

Who is At Risk?

Important risk factors of fatalities from SARS were found to be advanced age and pre-existing immuno vulnerabilities such as diabetes mellitus and hepatitis B virus infection. COVID-19 risk factors attack the same comorbid conditions.

A 28 Feb WHO report showed a 2.3% case fatality rate. While the common flu can be fatal to youngsters and babies as well as the elderly, COVID-19 has so far given a pass to the young, with no deaths under 9 years old to date. At highest risk of fatality are patients over 70, but particularly over 80 years. While the highest infection rate is in the 30-79 year age range, most of them recovered with only moderate to severe symptoms.

As the CDC meme says: Keep calm and wash your hands.