A day after public health officials, including Toronto’s medical officer of health, recommended using masks where physical distancing is not possible, Dr. Eileen de Villa stopped by CP24 to answer viewers’ questions and concerns about COVID-19.
CP24: A viewer asks why are public health officials now strongly recommending the use of masks? The viewer said perhaps the use of masks was why other countries did so well at keeping their COVID-19 numbers low.
De Villa: First and foremost, earlier in the course of our outbreak, the advice was to stay home. To not be going out, to stay home as much as possible. That was the best way to stay safe. The idea of using masks was not as significant. We didn’t need to be providing that advice because what we wanted people to do was to stay home.
We have to remember that we’re talking about a new virus identified in January. We’re still learning quite a bit about this virus. In the last several weeks, we’ve learned that there is a significant component of the spread of the virus, even amongst people who either don’t have symptoms or have very mild symptoms.
That’s why I think what you’re seeing is that we’re changing our advice as we learn more about the virus and as we move through different phases of our outbreak. That’s called responsible, responsive public health practice. We change and adapt our approach depending on what the science tells us and what our circumstances dictate.
CP24: What numbers do you feel we need to see before phase one would be pulled back? The viewer said she is a strong believer that the province is moving too fast.
De Villa: I think we must always monitor our situation, and this is really important. And we’ve had conversations. The chief medical officer of health has talked about the provincial framework for reopening the province. We’ve also seen local medical officers of health all across the province of Ontario conferring and discussing what should be the markers that help us make decisions.
There isn’t a single number to follow. We have to assess the situation and understand what the circumstances are to make the decision. We’re going to be looking for things like how much virus spread does there appear to be. What is the rate at which new cases are appearing in our community? How are outbreaks developing in our community? Do we see more or less in terms of outbreaks as we ease up on public health measures?
As well, we’re going to be looking at what’s happening in the hospital sector. Do we have healthcare capacity? Are we seeing lots of ICU beds and ventilators being used up? For COVID patients, how well is public health able to manage its case and contact tracing, and how much testing are we doing in our public, and what do we see as a result of that testing? This overall picture of what’s happening in each of our communities should determine whether we start to ease public health measures. There is always the possibility which we’re trying to avoid is to have to step back into previous measures.
CP24: With the numbers you’re seeing today, are you comfortable continuing with stage one and observing forward for stage two?
De Villa: I think where we’re at right now, we can observe what’s happening, continue to tell the public what’s most important in trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
I think that we would need to see far more progress in terms of virus control and containment. We want to make sure that things are okay in the hospital sector, that public health is managing well and that we’re doing good surveillance and have a solid strategy in place before we proceed with further easing public health measures.
For now, I would stay the course and continue to engage our public to say, let’s continue with physical distancing. Let’s make sure that we don’t lose the gains we’ve worked so hard together to achieve.
CP24: Can it be made mandatory for all employees to be provided with masks and gloves by their employers as there are presently many places that are open, and people are not wearing masks?
De Villa: I think that’s a really good question for some of our occupational health and safety colleagues. There are certain requirements for employers under the occupational health and safety act. It all depends on the nature of the work and the exposures that happen as a result of that work.
Mayor John Tory announced that the City of Toronto was going to be providing non-medical masks to its staff, and the mayor encouraged other businesses and other employers to do the same for their staff. There’s an opportunity for employers to help employees to contribute to the reduction of COVID-19 in our community through the distribution of cloth masks.
CP24: If schools reopen in September, how would you maintain social distancing in junior and senior kindergarten classes?
De Villa: I don’t know that I have a complete answer for that, but I can tell you a little bit about what’s being done in emergency childcare centers that are operating now. Those settings have kids even younger than that sometimes. And we know that social distancing or physical distancing is not easy with a group of toddlers. We keep the ratios pretty tight. You try to increase the number of staff that you have for the kids that are there to help keep that physical distancing. You reduced the class load as well.
I’m sure one of the strategies that’s being looked at by colleagues in the Ministry of Education will be things like maybe reducing the class to a certain number, not having perhaps a class of 30 people or five people. Reducing it and trying to split the time between what’s online and what’s in person so that students can maintain physical distancing in classrooms.
CP24: A viewer says there is never a clear answer on visits from family. He says we have three family members at our home. The viewer says the family is anxious to have our daughter, son-in-law, and our precious granddaughter visit and soon enjoy the pool. This does not seem to be addressed.
De Villa: For now, I would ask that you continue to stay in that single household bubble. We need to make sure that we have better control over COVID-19 in our community. I know I’m asking a lot, and I know this is difficult, but the sooner we do this now, the sooner we will get back to being able to enjoy mixing it up with other family members from outside of our household.
Now what can be done is that you can maintain that distance outside and at least wave from a distance but not that get together in the household and have your family dinner together. For now, please stay in your individual household unit. The more we do that now, the sooner we return to what we characterize as more regular interactions with our extended family members and friends.
CP24: An 81-year-old senior says, for over two months, I have remained at home, and my neighbours have been doing my grocery shopping with the loosening of restrictions. Is it now okay for me to venture out to the grocery store if I wear a mask and observe social distancing?
De Villa: It sounds like she’s got great neighbours who I hope are still willing to help her out. For her sake, it is still best for her to minimize outdoor visits, including going to the grocery. There is COVID-19 activity in our community, and someone of her age is at higher risk. To the extent that she can avoid those activities, I would encourage her to still avoid those activities.
I think it’s reasonable to get outside for a walk and get a little fresh air and enjoy some of the sunshine, maintaining that physical distance and only with household members.
CP24: What’s your take on mobile testing that could test up to 400 people at long-term care facilities and other businesses?
De Villa: I’m not averse to that notion, particularly for people who are having a hard time getting out to assessment centers and getting access to testing. But the important part is making sure that the testing is being directed to where it makes the most sense. We do want people to get tested if you feel that you’ve got symptoms of COVID-19.
And we want to make sure that the tests are being appropriately used to help public health officials with outbreak type situations. Mobile testing could be a good option, especially for people who are having a hard time getting access to tests.
CP24: A grocery store in the Annex is taking part in a pilot project that uses UV light to scan groceries. It is called Xgerminator, and it is manufactured in Ontario. The founder says it sanitizes groceries at the checkout with UV light in less than 30 seconds. They say it’s not killing germs, but it inactivates them. What do you think of this?
De Villa: We know that UV light has been used for lots of different purposes in terms of trying to reduce germs or viruses on a variety of different objects. We know that UV light does have that kind of activity. Whether this machine will have a beneficial effect, I imagine that’s why it’s a pilot project to see how it works.
When it comes to groceries and when it comes to what can be done across the board for people to help reduce their risk, wash your hands, wash your hands, and wash your hands. If we’re talking about produce, safe food handling technique is probably the best thing that you can do when it comes to safe grocery shopping and safe food preparation. But again, wash your hands. That’s the most important thing here.
This interview has been edited.