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Is it safe to give cards and flowers this Mother's Day? Your COVID-19 questions answered

We're answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday online, and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network.

From Mother’s Day gifts to possible HVAC transmission, here's what you’re asking today

With Mother's Day around the corner, some are wondering how they can safely give the usual gifts, such as cards and flowers. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

We're answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca and we'll answer as many as we can. We'll publish a selection of answers every weekday online, and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network.

Is it safe to give cards and flowers this Mother's Day?

With Mother's Day right around the corner, some are wondering how they can safely give the usual gifts. Cate O. wants to know whether cards are safe, and Phillip A. is curious about sending flowers.

In general, we know the virus is able to persist on different surfaces for varying amounts of time. So, when bringing or receiving gifts and packages, Health Canada advises people to continue to maintain proper hygiene to lower any risk of surface transmission. That includes washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available, and to avoid touching your face.

Dr. Peter Lin, a family physician and CBC medical expert, echoes this advice and adds moms can also wipe the surfaces around the flowers for extra caution. 

"If you want you can just wipe down the plastic around the flowers, you can use soap and water or disinfectant wipes. If you don't wipe it down that is fine, just wash your hands with soap and water so if there was any virus on the packaging it is washed off your hands," he says. "Same thing with after handling the card or any mail. Just wash your hands with soap and water and you will be fine."

Can the virus travel through HVAC systems?

Phil W. wrote to us wondering if the virus can travel through our heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

The short answer is, we aren't sure just yet, but we spoke to some experts who gave their thoughts.

First, it's important to remember how the coronavirus spreads.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus spreads primarily through tiny droplets expelled when an infected person sneezes, coughs, exhales or spits.

Because this is the main form of transmission, experts say they aren't overly concerned with HVAC systems.

"Might it be possible in some circumstances? Maybe. Is it a common or major route of transmission during this current wave? Unlikely," said Dr. Lisa Barrett, infectious diseases specialist and assistant professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

She adds that if the virus was able to travel easily through HVAC systems commonly found in buildings that rely on fans to circulate air, we would've seen "large numbers of exceptionally generalized outbreaks in apartments and other buildings that use these systems.".

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, agrees that if the primary form of transmission for this virus was aerosol, we would have "expected this disease to be even more widespread and more infectious."

However, such transmission is possible according to research available from the SARS outbreak in 2003. 

"We have experience from original SARS in 2003 that under certain conditions this disease could be transmitted through aerosols," said Oughton, who is also an assistant professor at McGill University. "It remains a possibility that it will contribute [to the spread of COVID-19] and therefore it's worth further exploration."

That's why engineers and air experts are currently conducting more research on this to determine exactly how the virus behaves in air ducts and HVAC systems.

Is it safe for a service person to come into the house? 

Maryanne S. is wondering about the safety of having a repair person in her home and what precautions one can take. 

Dr. Kevin Coombs, a microbiologist at the University of Manitoba, says, yes, it is safe, "as long as [the] serviceman isn't infected, and social distancing is maintained."

Of course, practising good hand hygiene is essential for both the repair person and you. 

"Frequent hand washing with soap is also a good idea for both serviceman and customer," Coombs offers. 

Everyone should wear a mask, says Lin. He also recommends having them take their shoes off. A list of Health Canada's guidelines on non-medical face masks Canadians can wear is here.

"The bottom of shoes can track the virus around so shoes off or at least not walking all over your place. If you need to touch cash or the receipt that is fine, just wash your hands off with soap and water," he said.

Repair services are considered essential and repair people across the country are taking different measures to protect themselves.

"I'm just being very proactive, making sure I take all the safeguards," said Rick Long, a plumber in P.E.I.

Is it safe to go to the ER?

Some emergency room physicians are concerned about a recent decrease in visits. Last month, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said emergency department visits in the province dropped by more than a half in just one month's time since the pandemic began.

Many Canadians, including Manny, are wondering if it is still safe to go to the ER.  

Dr. Ken Milne, chief of staff at South Huron Hospital in Exeter, Ont., said on CBC's The Dose, that although he understands people are concerned about possible transmission at the hospital, he encourages people to go in if they need medical attention. 

He adds that hospital staff are being "hyper-vigilant," wearing all the proper personal protective equipment and implementing strict isolation measures for COVID-19 patients. 

"We are on the top of our game when it comes to infectious control right now. So [the ER] might be one of the safest places to be," said Milne. 

Due to the decrease in the volume, ER wait times are down. So you will be spending less time in the department than before the pandemic. 

Many physicians fear that some overly cautious patients will end up suffering at home and even dying from lack of care. 

Milne emphasizes that although the messaging around flattening the curve has proven to be successful, it should have added "if you are concerned or you think you have an emergency don't stay away."

We're also answering your questions every night on The National. Last night, you asked our medical expert: Should people stay home if they're suffering from seasonal allergies? Watch below:

An infectious disease specialist answers questions about the COVID-19 pandemic including whether people suffering from seasonal allergies should stay home. 3:02

Thursday we answered questions about shopping and a possible second outbreak.

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at COVID@cbc.ca.

With files from Michelle Song

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