Trick-or-treating is 'an extremely low risk' activity under COVID-19, expert says

Is it safe to send the kids out for trick-or-treating this Halloween under COVID-19? Infectious disease specialist Dr. Martha Fulford says yes. Read the full interview with her as she explains why she says this Halloween is very safe for kids, even in the pandemic.

'My mother's 89 and I actually did not isolate her,' infectious disease specialist says

Going trick-or-treating for Halloween under COVID-19, an infectious disease specialist says, is "an extremely low risk activity."

Dr. Martha Fulford, an infectious diseases specialist at McMaster Children's Hospital and Hamilton Health Sciences, spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco on Thursday about exactly how safe Halloween might be under the pandemic.

You can read an edited and abridged transcript below, or hit play above and watch the entire interview.

Dr. Martha Fulford, infectious disease specialist 
Dr. Martha Fulford says getting COVID from touching wrapped candy is highly unlikely. (Hamilton Health Sciences)

How safe is it for kids to go out trick or treating this year?

And that, of course, is the core question.

We have learned a lot about COVID since March, obviously, and one of the good news stories is that while children certainly can get the virus, they simply don't get very sick from it. There are always going to be a few exceptions, but it is very clear both in Canada, in the U.S., and from around the world. For children 18 and under, influenza is actually more severe than COVID. And we don't, in general, worry about influenza when our kids are out and about.

This is in no way to say that COVID isn't real, because it is very real. It is a threat, and a very unforgiving virus if it hits the elderly in a long-term care facility.

Kids, in general, don't trick-or-treat with strangers. They tend to trick-or-treat with their siblings or close friends who are already going to be part of their cohort, and are kids that they're probably mingling with at school anyway. And then, of course, of all the times that people are going to be willing to wear a mask, probably, Halloween is way high up there. 

When we start doing things like cancelling Halloween, there's a subliminal message to kids that you're dangerous, that you're not safe, that you're part of the problem. And this is simply not true. It's not a healthy message to be giving to our children. It's actually a safe activity. These are the things that we recommend doing safely. There are lots of things that we can creatively do to still let children have fun and further reduce an activity that is already extremely low risk. 

Can you catch COVID from touching wrapped candy?

There is another good news story about COVID. We've discovered it's actually very seldom transmitted on surfaces, and that's even in high risk surfaces like our COVID wards. But also, anything on the surface doesn't jump into your nose. You have to actually transport it into your nose by a dirty hand.

So quite frankly, my advice is that same advice I would have a pre-COVID. Wash your hands before you eat. But no, food is not a way that COVID is transmitted.

The Medical Journal of Australia published a study earlier this week that says children may be more susceptible than originally thought and play a role in community transmission. What do you make of it?

It's an interesting question. There are always individual studies that people can point out where maybe there was an outbreak driven by children. But if we look around the world at all the different studies, probably the single best examples we have are the school re-openings. It's interesting that the study is from Australia, because an earlier study from Australia that was done before they locked down, which was in May, actually showed where they tracked the numbers in the schools. They had only nine high school students and nine staff that had confirmed COVID, but they had contact with 735 other students, 120 staff, and there's no secondary transmission. So that's Australia.

If we look at Toronto, there are about 1,200 schools and as of Oct. 19, they only had 11 active outbreaks. So I think it's really easy sometimes to focus in on the one bad story, but not look at what the denominator is.

And in those outbreaks, there have been very small numbers of secondary transmissions, so even though the kids definitely get it, it is clear that if you actually look at what's going on on the ground, we're not seeing a lot of other cases.  

It is actually significantly less likely to be transmitted by the children than, say, influenza. It's not that it can never happen, but for whatever reason, with this particular virus, they're not as effective.

So you're saying it's safe to head out for trick-or-treating. What about indoor parties?

Yeah, I'm not as in favour of parties because that is exactly what we're saying that maybe you want to think twice about.

I'm not sure how good the space is. How well are they going to keep that physical distance? It's a difficult thing to answer without knowing the logistics. That's probably not the best idea, quite frankly, at this point in time.

On the other hand, instead of saying to a teenager "You can't see your friends," I'm saying, "Well, look, can you guys have an outdoor party? If the weather's good, can you go to a park? Remember that distance is important. We're not saying you can never see your friends. That's just not a safe way to do it." 

How can we do this safely and let young people be young people? But right now, an indoor party is probably not the most prudent thing to do. 

Have public health officials gone overboard in the advice that they're giving the public on COVID precautions? 

I think it's maybe time for us to take a step back and ask ourselves what are our objectives of what we're doing? What are our targets? What are we aiming for?

I think it would be really important to ensure that when we give recommendations that they're based on the best epidemiological data. I think if we're saying don't do something, it should be because we know that there's been an outbreak associated with it. Also, I think we need to understand there will be some outbreaks in clusters, but maybe we should look at why that happened and maybe our response shouldn't be "nobody can do that anymore." 

I think we need to start to plan for how can we best carry on and do things safely because we are social animals.. 

My mother's 89 and I actually did not isolate her. She is 89 and the worst thing in the world for her would have been to be completely isolated from a mental health perspective. And I felt she was allowed to make a decision on whether she wanted to see people and see children or not. And I realize that's a bit of a radical thing. But I balanced all the risks and benefits. I had an understanding of all the consequences. And the most immediate consequence for me was I didn't want to push her into a profound depression.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.