UBC experts answer coronavirus (COVID-19) questions

The World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency due to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus. Experts at the UBC Faculty of Medicine answer some common questions for people in B.C.

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) and UBC’s response

Information and FAQs available here


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The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) can cause respiratory infection which in some cases has led to death. Initial reports suggest the mortality rate is less than severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). For the latest updated information on the novel coronavirus, please visit the BC Centre for Disease Control website.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has set up a novel coronavirus telephone information line at: 1-833-784-4397.

Jocelyn Srigley, coronavirus expert

Dr. Jocelyn Srigley

Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Is at-home isolation an effective way to stop the spread of the new coronavirus?

Yes, at-home isolation of patients who are infected with the novel coronavirus is one way that can help to stop the spread by preventing people who are sick from being in contact with others and potentially infecting them. Public health officials are also suggesting that people who have travelled to Hubei province, China, consider staying at home for 14 days after their last visit to Hubei, in case they develop symptoms during that time.

Should we be wearing masks?

No, masks are not recommended for most people in the general public. The best way to protect yourself from novel coronavirus infection, and the many other viruses circulating at this time of year, such as influenza, is to clean your hands frequently with alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water. Other ways to prevent the spread of infections include not touching your face, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, staying home when unwell, and avoiding others who are sick.

Masks should be used by health care workers who are in close contact with patients who may have many different types of infections. Masks should also be worn by sick people to prevent the spread of infection that may occur through coughing and sneezing. There is no evidence that wearing masks in public will protect those who are not sick, and in fact they may be at increased risk of picking up infections because they have a false sense of security or they touch their face more frequently to adjust the mask.

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Srinivas Murthy, coronavirus expert

Dr. Srinivas Murthy

Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics

As an expert attending the World Health Organization’s global research and innovation forum on February 11 and 12, what is the goal of this international effort?

Given the global scope of the problem that is this novel coronavirus, the forum’s goal is ensuring that the questions we ask and how we answer them as a global research community feeds into global knowledge so we can all learn from each other.

We’re aiming to make the questions as important and scientifically rigorous as possible. This will contribute to the best possible patient care, vaccine development, diagnostics testing and research so the fruits of that research can be applicable in many different regions to many different people.

How will this forum enable the development of a successful vaccine for this novel coronavirus?

Part of the goal of this global forum is to tell research funders what the scientific community needs to get control of this spreading infection. So as that is done, the funders will be there in the room and if vaccine-related questions are prioritized, the vaccine development process can hopefully be streamlined. Groups who are funding similar projects can pool resources accordingly.

What is your area of expertise and how do you foresee contributing to this gathering of international experts?

My area of expertise is research on clinical management of emerging infections that cause severe disease. I am co-chairing the group for clinical research on novel coronavirus at the WHO for this forum. Over the past few weeks, our global group of experts has been prioritizing the most important research questions and answers, both from a scientific message perspective as well as what is actionable. I will be contributing my own research and chairing the conversation to help the clinical research community answer relevant questions for these patients affected by the novel coronavirus.

Update from the World Health Organization forum

Hear from Dr. Srinivas Murthy after he returned from the forum held on February 11 and 12

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Deborah Money, coronavirus expert

Dr. Deborah Money

Executive Vice-Dean of UBC’s Faculty of Medicine
Professor, Departments of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Medicine, and the School of Population and Public Health

If I’m pregnant, what precautions should I take?

We recommend that pregnant women follow the same advice that B.C. public health officials recommend for non-pregnant adults: wash your hands often with soap and water, avoid touching your face, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, avoid others who are unwell, and stay home when you are sick.

As a member of the Society of Obstetricians & Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC), we are monitoring the outbreak very closely as there is limited data at this point in time on the novel coronavirus in general and no pregnancy specific data. As new information becomes available as it relates to pregnant women, the SOGC Infectious Disease committee will provide its members and the obstetric community with updates.

Any woman with feverish respiratory illness in pregnancy should take these symptoms seriously by contacting your health provider to seek advice.

What should I do if I am pregnant and suspect I may have been exposed to the virus?

Any pregnant woman with a significant respiratory illness with fever and shortness of breath should seek medical attention immediately. Influenzas can be more severe in pregnant women compared to non-pregnant adults.

Further, a pregnant woman with a history of these symptoms who is within 14 days of travel from the Wuhan region in China, or has been in close contact with someone who recently travelled from this area should contact their health care provider immediately.

Laura Sauve, coronavirus expert

Dr. Laura Sauvé

Clinical Assistant Professor, Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Pediatrics

Are children more vulnerable to this virus?

It’s important to recognize that we are in the middle of influenza season so influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and other respiratory viruses are very much more likely to affect B.C. children than the novel coronavirus.

We have really limited data on children at this time. Globally, only a very small proportion of the identified cases have been in children so we really don’t know about the effects on children as a whole yet – we are certainly watching it closely.

What can I do to protect my children?

Take the same measures as you would to prevent other respiratory illnesses. Make sure your children are washing their hands or using alcohol based hand rub, particularly after playing with other children. Teach kids to use good “cough etiquette,” which can be tricky with little kids. But the perennial “cover your cough” and “sneeze into your elbow” are important. Try to avoid play dates when kids are sick or have kids stay home when they are sick. These measures help to prevent all respiratory infections.

Michael Curry, coronavirus expert

Dr. Michael Curry

Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine

What important questions are still unanswered regarding the novel coronavirus?

We have to remember that this virus was only recently identified so we are still learning much about this infection. However, it is amazing how much we have learned so quickly about this new coronavirus. Back in 2003, UBC researchers were the first in the world to sequence the SARS coronavirus. With this new coronavirus we are able to build on past research to ensure we respond faster.

We think this infection is mostly spread by liquid droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, though more information is needed to confirm this. It’s difficult to say how fast it will spread since we are still in the early stages of the outbreak and don’t exactly know how effective the quarantine in Hubei province has been. We also don’t know how long virus droplets are infectious as a viral particle in the environment.

What precautions should we take to protect ourselves?

The best thing you can do is what we recommend for all respiratory viruses, particularly right now during influenza season. Wash hands frequently, try to cough or sneeze into your sleeve or elbow rather than into your hands. Try to avoid touching your face – it’s amazing how many times you touch your face without thinking about it over the course of the day. If someone in your household is sick, try to clean surfaces that you share. Try to keep about one or two metres away from people with respiratory symptoms like coughing and sneezing. If you are sick, stay home and give yourself time to recover without infecting those around you.

Steven Taylor, coronavirus expert

Dr. Steven Taylor

Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Clinical Psychologist

As the author of The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease, how do people commonly respond to virus outbreaks?

We typically see a range of responses. Most people will take reasonable precautions but some people will become excessively anxious and misinterpret minor coughs as signs of the novel coronavirus.

What advice would you give to people who are fearful of contracting the virus through their working environment, or from visiting a local restaurant or shopping mall?

For people in Canada, unless you hear otherwise from the health authorities, there is currently no need to alter your routine. There is no need to avoid public places. The best way to keep safe is to wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face, and cover your coughs.

What are the psychological impacts of isolation and quarantine on people and their families?

The psychological effects of being held in quarantine can vary among people. Some people cope reasonably well, while others find it very stressful. The nature of the quarantine contributes to how well people cope. People tend to cope better if they are prepared and told what to expect regarding the time in isolation, and are able to maintain contact with family and friends.

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Published: February 10, 2020