With the novel coronavirus being announced as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on Wednesday, local health officials are urging the community to work together to protect one another from the spread of COVID-19.
Dr. James Heilman is the head of the Emergency Department at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital (EKRH). He’s been involved in the COVID-19 pandemic planning and medical content on Wikipedia regarding the topic.
He says that as an emergency physician and someone involved in writing about and looking at this specific disease, communities need to start changing what we do on a daily basis to minimize risk.
“There are no cases here yet, but there are to the east, west and south of us,” Heilman said. “There are a few things we can do to protect ourselves and others. Big ones being wash our hands, and stay at home if we’re sick.”
He says that residents of Cranbrook and the surrounding area should think about avoiding crowds and going out less frequently as well.
“We’ve seen success in other areas of the world where they’ve started these social isolation protocols. Cancelling school and sporting events, for example. It’s probably prudent for all of us to begin cutting back. Work from home if you can. Wikimedia, for example, has closed its head office in San Francisco, asking all employees to work remotely,” Heilman explained.
As of March 12, Health Canada’s assessment of the public health risk of COVID-19 in the country remains low, however they do say that the situation could change rapidly.
“In order to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, everyone has a role to play,” reads the Health Canada website. “It takes more than governments and action from the health care sector to protect the health and safety of Canadians. Each of us can help our country be prepared in the event of an emergency by understanding how coronavirus spreads and how to prevent illness.”
Heilman says that at EKRH, he’s asked all of his emergency staff to stay within the region and cancel or avoid planning any holidays in the near future. He’s implemented other protocol to keep his staff safe as well, including wearing protective eyewear if they don’t already wear glasses.
He says it’s also important for schools, sports teams and community groups to start planning for closures.
“It’s a tough call, but the fear is that we’re not planning for where we will be in a week, or a month. We need to start acting now and we need to work together,” he urged.
When asked what would happen to students if local schools were to close and their parents had to continue to work, Heilman replied saying it’s time to start thinking about that as a community.
“We need to answer those questions. In Italy, China and Iran they have closed all schools. There are over 300 million students not in school across the world right now,” he said. “We have regulations here that children aren’t allowed to be home alone unless they’re 13 or older. We need to re-asses that. In times like these, we can’t go by standard practice.”
Andre Picard, a health reporter and columnist for The Globe and Mail, recently wrote an opinion piece stating that Canada needs to embrace social distancing.
He says social distancing means temporarily closing down schools, restricting access to hospitals and nursing homes, and cancelling mass gatherings like sporting events. He echoed Heilman’s advice to only travel if it is essential, and to work from home if you can.
“Social distancing means limiting our public interactions. It does not mean mass quarantine, shutting down our borders and other draconian measures,” he wrote.
If you think that you are sick with COVID-19, Dr. Heilman advises that you call 811 or your family doctor and tell them your symptoms. Definitely, he says, don’t go into the emergency room or doctor’s office without calling ahead.
“If you don’t have any symptoms, there is no need to get tested,” he stressed. “Don’t consider that you have the disease if you don’t have any symptoms. If you’ve travelled somewhere recently, it might not be a bad idea to self-isolate.”
Heilman adds that Interior Health has set up specific clinics to test for coronavirus in Kamloops, Kelowna, Penticton and Vernon.
“We are looking at opening such a clinic as well,” he said. “It’s a rapidly changing situation.”
Heilman says that he’s cancelled all of his personal travel plans for the foreseeable future. A meeting he had scheduled in Berlin was also cancelled.
“I have no plans to leave the community,” he said, adding he advises the same for Cranbrook and surrounding residents. “You definitely don’t want to get sick outside of Canada. First of all, your health insurance may not cover you. It’s also not fair to expect Canada to pay for your needs. It’s not the time to head out somewhere where there are lots of people.”
He says those who are young and healthy might survive the disease, but the mortality rate of COVID-19 is 10 to 20 times worse than the seasonal flu.
“This isn’t the flu,” Heilman said. “The seasonal flu puts our health care system under tremendous stress every year, but COVID-19 has completely overwhelmed a number of health care systems globally.”
He says that China sent COVID-19 infected patients to a separate hospital which were rapidly built over a couple of weeks and had more than 3,600 additional beds.
“We just don’t have that kind of capacity, and not only that, but we do not have that kind of staffing capability,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to respond to this in the same way and it will continue to grow unless we are diligent.”
Picard’s article explained how there is a broad range of opinions about coronavirus from “this is no big deal” to “this is the end of the world as we know it”. He says the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Health Canada has recommended people gather emergency supplies, so if you do become ill you are prepared. They advise that people stock up on essentials, but avoid panic buying. Things like non-perishable food items, dog food, hygiene products and diapers (if you have children who use them) are good to have on hand.
“The reason for stocking up on these items is not necessarily because you will need to self-isolate. Having these supplies on hand will ensure you do not need to leave your home at the peak of the outbreak if you become ill,” reads the Health Canada website.
The Townsman asked Heilman if fear is causing panic, and if people really should be worried about the pandemic. Heilman responded saying that people need to absolutely be cautious, but remain calm.
“Fear is a useful emotion, because it keeps people from doing stuff that gets them into harm’s way. We all need to be taking measures to protect ourselves, our families and our community. Don’t take inappropriate risks. If you do, you put your whole community at risk. Don’t be nonchalant. Be cautious. If fear makes you cancel your flight to New York, then it is the right way to be feeling,” he said, adding that some people are inappropriately downplaying the severity of the situation.
“We need to implement these measures today. We’re only going to address this if we work together. Our community, local government, health care system, and all levels up to the federal government need to take this seriously. It has devastated the airline industry. It will continue to impact all kinds of industry as it grows with time,” Heilman said. “If it continues to grow, there are going to be a lot of hard times ahead, for a lot of people.”