Cross Country Checkup

From masks to mail, health experts answer your questions on the new coronavirus

Sunday on Cross Country Checkup, infectious disease experts answered listeners' commonly asked questions about the new coronavirus.

Infectious disease doctor Susy Hota encourages Canadians to wash hands frequently

People wear masks as a precaution due to the coronavirus outbreak as they wait for arriving travellers at the international terminal of Toronto Pearson International Airport. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

With the first "presumptive" case of the new coronavirus confirmed in Canada, and growing concern about its transmissibility, Canadians are wondering if they're at risk.

In the Chinese province of Hubei — believed to be the virus's epicentre — officials have reported 76 deaths related to the coronavirus.

Five cases have been reported in the U.S., including two new infections confirmed on Sunday — one in Los Angeles County in California and the other in Maricopa County, Ariz.

In total, 10 countries have reported cases of the coronavirus, according to the World Health Organization.

While federal health officials said Sunday that they expect more cases of the coronavirus in Canada, they say the risk of an outbreak in this country remains low.

From using masks to opening overseas mail, health experts answered listeners' commonly asked questions about the new coronavirus Sunday on Cross Country Checkup.

Are masks useful?

Toronto General Hospital Research Institute infectious disease specialist Dr. Susy Hota says that masks can be helpful — but only in certain scenarios. She says that the average Canadian should not yet worry about using a mask.

"Right now, there is really not a role for everyone putting on a mask to protect themselves," she said.

Those working in hospitals — or visiting an affected patient — do require personal protective equipment, including masks.

Viruses like the new coronavirus require close and "sustained" contact for transmission, Hota said.

"It's usually larger, respiratory droplets that are generated from when you cough or sneeze … that, actually, can only travel for about two metres or so," she said.

Does it live on inanimate objects?

Hota said that we don't know how long the new coronavirus lives on surfaces — and that its lifespan likely depends on the surface.

Hota acknowledged that many surfaces, including those at airports, are not cleaned all the time. 

With that in mind, she advised people to take additional precautions to protect themselves.

"Keep sanitizer with you [and] wash frequently, especially after you've been in public areas," Hota suggested.

Global health expert Steven Hoffman says that Canadians should feel comfortable travelling. 'There are no travel bans or travel advisories,' he said on Cross Country Checkup. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Can I travel?

When it comes to travel, including to Asian countries, York University professor and global health expert Steven Hoffman said that he would still board a plane — and encouraged callers to do the same.

"I think what's important now, from a big picture perspective, is that there are no travel bans or travel advisories," he said.

"There is a notice if people are planning to go to affected areas to be extra cautious," he warned.

Hoffman encouraged travellers to stay updated with the latest information about the coronavirus while travelling.

What's important to remember about a virus like the new coronavirus is that it only spreads within close proximity, Hoffman noted.

Should I avoid public transit?

Hota said that people travelling in crowded situations, including on public transit, can take extra precautions to avoid exposure.

She encouraged additional hand washing, and to avoid holding poles and handles with your bare hands. People should also consciously avoid touching their face.

"For those of us who start to feel ill, it's really important to practice what we call 'respiratory etiquette,'" Hota said.

"If you feel like you need to cough or sneeze, make sure you cough or sneeze into your sleeve or into a tissue."

Anyone feeling really ill should take a sick day at home, she said.

Travellers wear masks at Pearson airport arrivals on Saturday, shortly after Toronto Public Health received notification of Canada's first presumptive confirmed case of coronavirus. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Is mail from China safe?

Hota said there's little risk of infection from items mailed to Canada from China.

Responding to listeners' concerns about mail entering the country from affected areas, Hota said that packages and envelopes are unlikely to carry the new coronavirus.

"Yes, we do lick stamps to put them on, or envelopes to close them — but generally we don't lick them to open them," she explained.

In order to contract a virus, it would need to survive the transportation from one country to another. "Likely, it wouldn't remain viable in that sense over that period of time."

Can I eat food imported from China?

Food that is thoroughly washed or cooked is typically safe to eat, even if it has come into contact with bacteria or a virus, Hota said.

"As long as you're following the usual food safety guidelines that we have out there, [it] should be effective here," she explained.

Hoffman said that Canada has one of the world's "safest" food supply systems. 

"We have some of the most rigorous regulations anywhere in the world," he said. 

Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News.