As Torontonians continue to grapple with the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many still have some unanswered questions about the virus.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto's medical officer of health, joined CP24 on Thursday afternoon to discuss the status of COVID-19 in the city and to answer some viewer questions.
CP24: What would you say to viewers about the state of COVID-19 in the City of Toronto right now?
COVID-19 is still having some significant impact on our city. We have 2,881 cases here in our city, and we know that there are a number of people who are in a hospital -- 230 as of earlier this afternoon, 88 of whom are intensive care units. And we know that about 147 people have died from COVID-19 in our community. And that's why we're continuing to say the message, stay home as much as possible. Practice physical distancing as much as possible.
CP24: It seems provincial officials have been taken aback by the impact of COVID-19 on long-term care facilities. Are you shocked by what's happening in Toronto's long-term care homes?
I wouldn't say that I'm shocked. I think we had expected that there would be challenges if COVID-19 were to enter within the long-term care setting. We know that long-term care homes have residents that are older and tend to have chronic health conditions, and you have a number of people together. Those are the kinds of conditions that create challenges, and that give rise to more significant and severe impacts and outcomes around COVID-19.
CP24: If we now know that the virus can spread even when the carriers are symptom-free, why are you not recommending universal mask wearing?
Well, that's an excellent question. As I've said many times before, this is a new virus -- a virus that was only identified in earlier this year and first sequenced in, in early January. So, there's a lot that we're still learning when it comes to this virus. And I know that there have been other jurisdictions that have made that recommendation given their unique circumstances.
We're discussing very actively within public health as a field. And I expect that we will start to make some decisions very shortly. However, what we have said in respect of wearing nonmedical masks – and this was already a recommendation provided by the chief public health officer for the country – was that it is reasonable to consider wearing a mask.
We want to practice physical distancing. The advice is still to stay home as much as possible and practice physical distancing. But, for those situations where physical distancing is difficult to achieve, it is reasonable to consider wearing a nonmedical mask as a member of the general public. But not to protect yourself. It's more to protect others from any germs you may inadvertently or unknowingly be transmitting.
CP24: Is it necessary to be wiping down all grocery bags and grocery items when we get home?
I think the most important thing is that good standard infection prevention and control guidance that we give is that to wash your hands, especially before you're cooking or preparing food or eating, and making sure that you're actually handling your food properly.
This is good advice that's given all the time by local public health officials and whether we're talking about COVID-19 or any other potential infectious disease agent. These are good pieces of advice to follow at all times – wash your hands, wash your food properly, and make sure that you're just practicing good hygiene.
CP24: When it comes to takeout food, I plan on ordering a takeout take from an establishment that makes sandwiches. If coronavirus lands between a sandwich, how long would it survive?
That's an interesting question and one that frankly is very difficult to answer given that we're talking about a new virus there. I don't know that there have been significant studies with respect to coronavirus and its longevity in food.
What I would ask people to do, particularly those for handling food, is that if you're sick, you should stay home. You shouldn't be handling food. And my expectation as well is that restaurants and places that are providing food for takeout should be practicing good hygiene as we expect they do. The advice for individuals who are consuming food is: wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands before you eat.
CP24: Do the people who perform the tests for the virus have to be nurses or doctors? Could anyone get the test kits and perform the tests?
You do have to make sure that you're trained and that you know how to perform the test properly because if the test is not done properly. If it's not done with proper procedure, then you can't be sure that the result that you get from the test is a reliable one. So, that's why I would say that we need to make sure that we've got trained individuals. They're not necessarily nurses or doctors, but they do need to be trained on how to use the test properly and to handle the testing kit properly as it goes to the labs so that you get an appropriate test result.
CP24: What are some of the changes you need to see to say or affirm that it is safe for kids to go back to school?
So, that's an excellent question and one that's not entirely in my decision-making capacity. But, I think what we're talking about is when are we going to start to return to regular life, which includes going back to school. I think there are a number of issues that are at play, and we're certainly trying to learn from other jurisdictions who are a little ahead of us in terms of the outbreak cause COVID-19 hit their communities earlier. So, what we're looking for is: how much control do we have on the disease in the community? Are we actually starting to see declining increases like a reduced number of cases, new cases coming on board each day and being announced?
We certainly want to see that our healthcare system is doing well. That's a key element of the response. We need to know that our hospitals are available to actually manage COVID-19 cases and cases of other diseases because those don't stop in the middle of a global pandemic. And of course, we're trying to balance all of this with uh, you know, society and economic outcomes because those have health impacts as well.
CP24: Ontario's Associated chief Medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffee, had spoken about possibly seeing a peak of virus cases this week. Do you see any indication of that yet?
So, my understanding from the models and what we're seeing in terms of cases and how quickly or not quickly they're arising, there are certainly signs for optimism. I prefer to take a look and see what we're seeing over the course of several days to determine that. And from a provincial perspective, they have access to different models and different data. But, certainly, I can assure you that throughout the province we are all watching very carefully. I think it's a positive sign that we're not seeing huge increases in hospitalizations and end in intensive care unit admissions. We're watching that very carefully to determine how things are going and what we can do next and how we can get our city back because I know we're all very eager to do that.
CP24: With summer approaching and swimming pools and beaches in use, can the virus be transferred in the water?
So, actually, that's a very interesting question, and I have to admit the thought of a swimming pool certainly has some appeal, but it's hard to imagine when it was snowing just earlier today. However, I can appreciate that as the warmer weather approaches, we will be turning our minds to things like swimming and other sort of outdoor activities. I have yet to see the studies with respect to how well the virus survives in a swimming pool or a recreational water environment. I will be asking my colleagues back at Toronto Public Health and certainly our scientific colleagues at Public Health Ontario to help us understand that particular question.
CP24: What would you advise Dr. de Villa that people do to strengthen their immune system?
I think there are a number of different things that people can do to strengthen their immune systems, but I would say first and foremost, there is no magic bullet. As much as we want to have a simple solution to being our healthiest selves, there isn't just one simple that can be done.
But you know, eating a good, balanced diet, trying to get good rest, trying to keep stress levels at a reasonable amount, which is I realized very difficult in this challenging time. And given how much change we've had to experience in our daily lives. But to the extent that you can reduce stress by connecting virtually with friends and family, that'll help. Just good sort of stuff that your mother told you or that your grandmother or your parents have told you about staying healthy are the best ways to strengthen one's immune system.
This interview has been edited.