From shopping to walks: Your coronavirus questions answered

From shuttered businesses and empty offices to silent streets and crashing stock markets, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered every aspect of daily life in Alberta.

As the number of cases continues to grow and sanctions intended to curb social interactions escalate, many Albertans are wondering how best to protect themselves, and which every-day activities are still considered safe.

Dr. Mark Joffe joined Edmonton AM on Monday to answer some of those questions. 

Joffe is the vice-president and medical director for northern Alberta at Alberta Health Services.

He is also a professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta, where he's also an adjunct professor in medical microbiology and immunology and the School of Public Health.

Here is that conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Q. Is it still OK to go to recreational areas like the river valley trails that could be crowded?

A. I was out walking in the river valley this weekend. I was actually quite impressed that most people, as they came toward me on the path, seemed to understand that they needed to remain about six feet away from me and I was certainly doing the same with them.

It's great being out in the fresh air and especially if there's a little bit of wind blowing that would dilute any virus that might be in the air, that would be the safest you could possibly be.

I am self-isolating and only going out to walk my dog. Will I be able to continue if a quarantine is called? 

We're going to have to look after our animals. They're part of our families. We can't ignore them. And I can't really imagine that we'll reach a point of quarantine where we won't be able to take our animals out for a walk to do their business. I hope we don't reach that point.

Being out in the great outdoors is actually the safest place to be as long as you're six feet away from others walking outside. It couldn't be any safer than that. 

New testing protocols give priority to at-risk populations. Why was this change needed now?

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We knew that, over time, we would have to look very carefully at our test strategies and that things would evolve. To date, the focus to date has been on returning travelers. We knew over time the number of travelers would gradually drop off as borders closed and as Canadians returned home. We also knew that as the number of individuals impacted by COVID-19 increased in our communities that we would have to refocus our attention.

Again the key thing is, individuals who get sick need to stay home. We don't need a test to tell people to stay home.

We will be focusing our testing more on vulnerable populations, particularly those in senior centres. We're going to be focusing the testing more on essential service workers, particularly health care workers. It will be really important for us to know whether a healthcare worker with a mild fever or a cough has COVID-19 or not. And if they do not have it, we're going to want to get them back into the workforce as soon as their symptoms settle.

My 74-year-old husband has a severe lung disease. Is it safe for me to do our shopping or should I rely on the help of my neighbours? 

I would say that an individual who has serious underlying lung disease and is in their 70s is exactly this sort of individual that we want to protect from COVID-19.  

I understand that your caller prefers to do her own shopping and wants to be out in public. She can certainly do so safely, if she maintains social distancing, cleans her hands frequently and clean surfaces frequently. She can go out and can do some of her household chores safely if she's really attentive to detail.

But I think this is a time that it would be reasonable to accept some help from others as well.

If I go out shopping, is it safe to bring the items inside my home immediately?

I think it's certainly safe to bring things immediately inside if you wanted to. But you can take some extra precautions with articles that may come in packaging. 

For example, if you buy 12 rolls of toilet paper in wrapping, you could take the wrapping off outside and bring the individual rolls inside. Any contamination would be on the outside surface. There may be surfaces that you could wipe down with a common household cleaner or disinfectant.

With cardboard boxes in general, it's a good idea to remove the items from the box and then bring any smaller items inside.

What should people who are continuing to work in an office be doing to take extra precautions?

It's about the attention to detail and focusing on activities that we probably wouldn't have thought much of before. It's about social distancing, staying two meters away from others as much as possible. It's about frequent hand cleaning.

And if one is working in a cubicle-type environment, use cleaners or disinfectants to clean the high-touch surfaces frequently. It's certainly possible to continue to go to work in that kind of an environment but it's really about the attention to detail.

Many of the symptoms are similar to a flu or the common cold. At what point should I be concerned?  

By far the most common symptom with COVID-19 is fever and just about everyone that develops COVID-19 will have a fever. Sometimes it's not present right at the beginning but it will occur within the first day or two. That's the most common thing. Cough is the second most common. And so again it's that combination of a fever and a cough. That should make individuals most concerned. 

There definitely are some other things that can occasionally be seen. Muscle aches and pains and fatigue are fairly common as well. It's that combination of symptoms, the onset of a fever with a cough that would be the most concerning.

How airborne is the virus? 

What we know about this virus is that it's spread in relatively large droplets that emerge from the mouth as people talk or particularly if they cough or sneeze those large droplets tend to settle out over about three feet possibly out to as much as six feet. That's why we talk about social distancing. The virus is not airborne. It does not spread long distances through the air.

What about air temperature? How does that impact transmission?

I don't think we fully understand this yet. We certainly know with some viruses they actually tend to prefer cold weather and low humidity, and as the temperature rises or the humidity rises, they may not survive as long in the environment.