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COVID-19 six months later; how long will this last?

Algoma Public Health doctor reflects on how far we’ve come, what needs to be done better

Six months after the Sault and Algoma region, along with the rest of Ontario, Canada and the world shut down due to COVID-19, and as our community’s businesses and schools reopen, SooToday asked a local health professional how much longer she feels this current COVID era will last.

Some people speak of a post-COVID world, but when will that be?

“I wish I could pull out my crystal ball and see,” said Dr. Jennifer Loo, Algoma Public Health (APH) associate medical officer of health and director of health protection.

“I think a vaccine will definitely be a very important next step,” Loo said, pointing to several clinical trials currently underway around the world, adding the common sense measures of maintaining a healthy diet, exercise and getting a flu shot (if one so desires) will help keep COVID cases down. 

As the regular flu season approaches, Loo said “the most important thing for people to do, if they just have mild symptoms (of the flu), is to get a COVID test (just in case) and stay home (until that flu or COVID passes). We need to preserve the capacity of our healthcare system at the community level so that those who truly need urgent care can get it. Heart attacks and strokes are still happening and haven’t gone away.”

“We don’t want to go into lockdown again,” Loo said, emphasizing the need for all to observe existing COVID-19 precautionary measures, such as wearing masks, physical distancing and staying within one’s social circle.

Despite a heap of COVID-19 precautionary measures to observe, Loo said students, parents and teachers seem to be adjusting to the new COVID-19 era classrooms after school started Sept. 8.

A COVID back to school guide may be found on the APH website.

To provide further clarity for community members and families, the APH has provided the Algoma District School Board (ADSB) with further guidance and information

“As with every stage of reopening during the pandemic, the first couple of weeks are always a huge learning curve for everyone involved, our parents, our teachers, our students. I think probably the students are the ones who are taking it all in stride,” Loo said.

Throughout the COVID ordeal, some Sault and Algoma residents have complained of a long wait time between COVID testing and receiving test results. 

Sault COVID-19 test swabs are not performed at an APH lab, but at the Sault Ste. Marie COVID-19 Assessment Centre near Sault Area Hospital and sent to out-of-town labs (both private and provincial Public Health Ontario labs), Loo said.

“We are looking to reach out to all of our partners and stakeholders to do a bit of an evaluation on how things have gone over the past six months, what went well and what could’ve been improved.”

“We know that it’s super have timely test results,” Loo said.

“These are the types of issues we know are ongoing. They’re shared across the north and rural communities so we’re actively trying to find additional see how we can have better access to timely testing in our region.”

“In Algoma, during the most recently available seven-day period between September 3 and September 9, the average turnaround time for COVID-19 tests was about three days, turnaround time measured from when the swab was collected to the time the result was made available. It is important to note that this is just the average situation, and some individuals will experience shorter or longer times than this reported average,” APH reported to SooToday in a subsequent email after a Wednesday morning phone interview with Loo.

“I think it’s really important to think of how far we’ve come in the past six months,” Loo said.

“For a virus we’ve never seen before, we’ve come a very long way and in Algoma in particular,” Loo said, crediting multiple healthcare and community partners in the Sault and area with a ready, proactive approach to COVID, two months before the COVID-19 shutdown in March.

“We knew about this virus beginning in January.”

“There were bits of information coming out already. A lot of Algoma Public Health’s emergency preparedness team was already talking with the Community Emergency Management Coordinators, our CMCs, in Algoma’s 21 municipalities...we knew the risk of the virus in our communities at that very beginning point of the pandemic was going to be related to returning travellers (such as snowbirds and March Break travellers), so there was a lot of work behind the scenes (to help quarantined people with things such as grocery delivery),” Loo said.

“This was happening days before the federal government implemented the mandatory quarantine.”

As many, if not most, viruses dissipate after a while, why has this one stayed for so long?

“There are a lot of different viruses out there (the flu, for example)...those are viruses that have been with humans for quite some time," Loo said. "They come and go, but this is similar to H1N1, and it hasn’t actually gone away, it’s just become another one of those respiratory viruses that circulate every season. SARS caused much more severe illness and what we saw in Ontario was that it tended to transmit particularly in healthcare settings where there was a lot of closed contact.”

“With COVID-19, as we’re continuing to see, it’s not just limited to those settings. It can transmit in households, it can transmit in gatherings where people come together and don’t observe physical distancing. That’s part of the nature of the virus itself. Every virus is different, and what we know now about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is that it has an incubation period of up to 14 days and when a person gets symptoms they’re able to transmit the virus to others from 48 hours before symptom onset, up to 14 days after symptom onset, so that’s a fairly long period of time,” Loo said.

“That’s very tricky for us, even when we’re being the most careful. If we don’t show any symptoms we could still potentially be pre-symptomatic and be able to transmit the virus and so for that reason, this is why it’s been so important for us to say ‘keep on physical distancing, wear that mask’ because you never know if you’ve happened to have picked up the virus.”

In layman’s terms, it’s a virus like none other.

“It’s within the family of coronaviruses, the same family of viruses that caused SARS but it is novel and no one on the planet has seen it before and so no one has immunity,” Loo said.

Everyone, not only the elderly and/or those with serious health conditions or unhealthy lifestyles, is susceptible to COVID-19, Loo said.

“The virus does not discriminate. Your risk of getting infected is related to your risk of exposure to other get it when another (infected) person comes within two metres of you (and/or), coughs and sneezes those infected droplets to you.”

“Because no one has immunity, everyone is susceptible…in Algoma everyone has done such a great job with the first wave, we’ve kept transmission to the absolute minimum, with less cases in total than some big cities have in a day, but the flip side of that is all of us are still susceptible and as long as the virus continues in other communities, in other jurisdictions, in other countries, we literally all are in this together. We can’t disrupt a lot of trade and travel and the virus will continue to circulate,” Loo said.