Cross Country Checkup·Ask Me Anything

Dining out, school buses and testing levels: Your COVID-19 questions answered by experts

With more of the economy opening, especially bars and restaurants after they were shuttered in March thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Gerald Evans and epidemologist Raywat Deonandan answer Checkup listeners' questions.

Dr. Gerald Evans and epidemologist Raywat Deonandan answer questions from Checkup listeners

People wear protective gear as they take orders at a restaurant in Montreal, Sunday, July 19, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. The wearing of masks or protective face coverings is mandatory in Quebec as of July 18. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

With more of the economy opening, especially bars and restaurants after they were shuttered in March thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, many Canadians still have questions about the risks and spread of COVID-19.

On Sunday, Cross Country Checkup opened the phone lines for another installment in our COVID-19 series of Ask Me Anything call-ins with guest host Ian Hanomansing.   

Dr. Gerald Evans, medical director of Infection Prevention & Control at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, and Professor Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at University of Ottawa, took calls from listeners.

Here are some of the highlights.

Should I avoid unsanitized tables at restaurants?

Michelle Josef in Toronto asked whether it's safe to sit at a restaurant table, including those outside, that hasn't been sanitized after it was used.

"People take their masks off. They eat. They're touching the chair back, they're touching the table. They're touching the ketchup, they're touching the salt and pepper. Should all that be wiped down after someone gets up and leaves?" she asked.

Restaurants and bars began reopening in parts of Canada last month after closing for dine-in service at the beginning of the pandemic. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Dr. Evans says that every surface should be cleaned at a restaurant, and that should be part of the protocols for any establishment's reopening.

But more broadly, he says that it goes to the issue of fomite transmission. Fomites are objects and materials likely to carry infections.

"What we're beginning to see as we really examine contact tracing of cases around the world is that a significant percentage — 80 to 90 per cent — is respiratory droplets," he explained. "It's contact with someone who's infected in close proximity where those respiratory droplets can be inhaled and impacted."

He adds that while infection from surfaces is possible — and should be addressed with proper cleaning — "it isn't a major driver."

"The question is whether there's enough virus on that tabletop from somebody who may have been infected was eating there. We still don't know the exact answer," he told Checkup.

How will reopening bars and restaurants affect the reopening of schools?

Deonandan believes that "100 per cent of our focus" in public health should be on the safe reopening of schools this fall.

"Anything that distracts us from that goal is a disservice to the ultimate public health outcomes that we care about," he told Hanomansing. 

For many students, the new school year remains up in the air as school boards across the country have yet to announce a whether children will return to the classroom, or take virtual classes. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The way to ensure it's safe to open schools is to ensure the incidence of COVID-19 is as low as possible in the community. 

If it's not spreading within the community, he says, "it can't get into the schools and it can't get into people's houses."

"Opening bars does not does not keep the caseload low in the community," Deonandan added.

Deonandan points to the spread of COVID-19 at bars in both the U.S. and Canada — Quebec saw a rise in positive cases after it reopened the establishments last month —  as a message of sorts.

"It's telling us that bars are a dangerous place to play with as the economies reopen," he said.

What about school buses?

Calling from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., school bus driver Joanne Woods asked about the possible spread of COVID-19 on school buses rather than in classrooms.

"I've been driving for a long, long time and I've heard a lot of discussion about keeping kids safe in the classroom, but I haven't heard anything about when we're transporting them to school," she said.

Caller Joanne Woods asked whether it will be safe for students to ride school buses if they return to classrooms in the fall. (Émilien Juteau/Radio-Canada)

Deonandan says that there needs to be a major investment in this area — buying new buses and hiring additional drivers, "whatever it takes in order to get the kids to school in a vehicle that has as few of them as possible."

In Japan, he explained, students have been "successfully" bussed to school, with children wearing masks and face shields. 

"There's adorable videos you can see on YouTube of little kids getting on buses ... and greeting the bus driver who's protected behind plexiglass," he said.

"Transportation is one of those areas we have to focus on," he continued. "It's kind of related to the question around airline travel."

"We're focused so much on what happens in the plane, but it also matters what happens in the airport and transportation to the airport and getting in and out of the plane."

What level of testing is needed to reopen economies?

Testing continues to be crucial in order to get a snapshot of what's happening within communities, says Evans.

"One of the most important measures that we want to track, actually, is the speed of the increase in new cases," he told Hanomansing.

The slope of that curve, he adds, can tell experts a lot about when virus-related restrictions can be loosened or increased.

Deonandan adds that two other values are key to epidemiologists: the rate at which the disease reproduces and the percentage of tests that return a positive result.

Hundreds of people line up at the Hotel Dieu COVID-19 testing clinic Wednesday, July 15, 2020 in Montreal. The city has recommended that anyone who has been in a bar since July 1, 2020 to get tested. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

He says that the reproduction number should be under 1. Canada's reproduction rate currently hovers around 1. 

Meanwhile, the number of positive test results should be as low as possible, and in Canada, it's approximately 3 per cent.

"We know we're doing enough testing if that ... last number I mentioned is 10 or less, because we don't think the prevalence of the disease is as high as 10," said Deonandan adding that we're "doing OK."

"Testing is everything. It's our primary tool in navigating through the rest of this pandemic, and we can't take our foot off the pedal."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Kirthana Sasitharan, with files from Mrinali Anchan.

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