Overreacting in response to coronavirus pandemic 'just as harmful as underreacting': health expert

With heightened concern over the novel coronavirus pandemic in Manitoba, public health experts say individual and governmental responses should remain calm and measured.

Mass quarantines, broad travel bans can backfire, says York University's Steven Hoffman

A man walks by the deserted Piazza di Spagna in central Rome on March 12. Italy shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops in efforts to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. But public health experts warn individuals and governments need to ensure they're responding calmly and rationally to the outbreak. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

With heightened concern in Manitoba over the novel coronavirus pandemic, public health experts say both individual and governmental responses need to be calm and measured.

"Overreacting in an outbreak like this can be just as harmful as underreacting," Steven Hoffman, a York University professor in global health, law and political science, said in an interview Friday morning.

"It really is important that the response continues to be motivated by the best research evidence."

On Thursday, Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen announced the first three presumptive cases of COVID-19 in the province. The first case has since been confirmed by the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, and the other two are expected to be confirmed.

On Friday afternoon, the province announced classes will be cancelled at public schools in Manitoba for a week before and after the upcoming spring break, meaning students will be out from Monday, March 23, until April 13. 

The province also recommended organizations cancel or postpone gatherings involving more than 250 people.

"Every time an organization cancels a large event, that's an example of someone doing their part to limit the spread of this virus in Manitoba," Dr. Brent Roussin, the province's chief public health officer, said Friday.

He also advised against any non-essential business travel and suggested meetings be held remotely if at all possible.

"There's a role for every Manitoban to play in this," Roussin told CBC's Information Radio on Friday morning, including things like proper hand-washing, coughing into your sleeve, staying home if you're sick, limiting prolonged close contact, and thinking twice about going to large gatherings.

Overreacting to COVID-19

Hoffman says there have been some rash reactions, though, that don't consider possible consequences.

The U.S. ban on most travellers from continental Europe, for example, "is a move that will not work," he said. 

"It will only undermine the public health response, and indeed, shifts the focus and resources away from the things that actually could help in the United States.… Definitely, no country should be imposing those broad, imprecise travel restrictions against other countries."

He also added that mass quarantines, like those in northern Italy, make people very uneasy.

"When one area of a country is quarantined where millions people are asked to stay there, it's just human nature for them, if they feel that they're at increased risk … to try to flee," Hoffman said, adding that could further spread the virus.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen and Dr. Brent Roussin announced province's first presumptive cases of novel coronavirus on Thursday. On Friday, the province said classes at Manitoba schools will be cancelled for one week before and after the upcoming spring break. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Prior to Manitoba's announcement it would cancel public school classes, Ontario announced its schools would remain closed for two additional weeks after that province's March break. Hoffman said that decision was a surprise.

"When kids are not going to school, suddenly that means there's a lot of parents who have to worry about taking care of their kids who might not be able to get to work," he said.

"Some of those parents are going to be doctors, nurses, other health-care professionals upon whom we rely to deliver care during an outbreak like this."

Timing responses

Part of deciding on the right province-wide response is figuring out appropriate timing, Hoffman said.

He believes things like school closures should only be considered once there are community transmissions, noting the "downstream consequences" — like the impact on children's education, their parents' work and the economy, to name a few.

"When we start to have cases where we can't know where they came from and can't contain them, at that point is when we start to think this is likely to further spread," he said.

Even in those cases, considerations should be made so people critical to the fight against COVID-19 can get to work.

He added that in the event of community transmissions in Manitoba, closures could be limited to parts of the province where there is a marked spike in the spread of the virus.

'Moral obligation' to help prevent spread

Dr. Jason Kindrachuk says there needs to be an appropriate response to the pandemic — somewhere between pretending the pandemic is not happening and complete panic.

Personal efforts to curb the spread are a "moral obligation," said Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.

Dr. Jason Kindrachuk says everyone has a role to play in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, but that stockpiling enough supplies to last months would be an overreaction. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"We know that obviously seniors and the elderly … can get hit fairly hard with this virus when they get infected. Same thing with people that have health complications," he told CBC News on Thursday.

"I think we need to do all the things we can do to try and reduce the disease burden on the most vulnerable of our population."

He echoed the province's calls for social distancing and personal hygiene.

"All these things have an unbelievably important role in curbing disease transmission."

On the other hand, he says people who are stockpiling enough supplies to last months are overreacting.

"We're not at that point."

(CBC News)

With files from Caitlyn Gowriluk and Bartley Kives