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Infectious disease expert Dr. Lisa Barrett answers viewer questions about COVID-19
HALIFAX -- The information surrounding COVID-19 can be overwhelming and, at times, hard to understand.
Many Maritimers have had questions about the virus itself and how to deal with it. Particularly, when some of the messaging continues to change, as the science community learns more about the disease.
Dr. Lisa Barrett sat down with CTV News Atlantic anchor Monday night to provide answers to the ever-changing questions about COVID-19.
Dr. Barrett is a medical doctor and clinician scientist with expertise in infectious disease and human immunology.
In addition to a PhD and MD from Memorial University, an internal medicine residency at Dalhousie University and an infectious disease fellowship at the University of Toronto, her training includes post-doctoral training at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland.
During her training at the National Institute of Health in Maryland, Dr. Barrett worked with prominent American physician and immunologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is a member of the coronavirus task force in the United States.
Below is a transcript of the interview:
1. What is your standpoint on wearing bandanas or masks when going out in public?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: My take on it is that I do take the advice of our Canadian and provincial chief public health officers, always.
The reason their advice is changing is because the viral temperature, the viral weather around us is changing. You wouldn’t go out in the summer wearing the same thing you would wear in the winter. As this pandemic changes, so should what you might want to wear.
What I mean by that is, the virus is getting more common around us at this point. Sometime we do have to go outside. As it becomes more frequent that someone around us may be infected, or have the virus, and not yet know, it is probably not an unreasonable thing to consider wearing some form of face covering if you are going to be out and you are not able to do the physical-distancing that you usually would.
I really want to be clear about that, because this idea of potentially, maybe, wearing a mask is in no way shape or form meant to replace staying home as much as you can and handwashing, not touching your face, and making sure you clean high-touch surfaces. It is really not meant to mean that people should now just stick a coffee filter on the front of their face and run around outside. It really is not meant to be that kind of directive.
2. Are the home-sewn fabric masks sufficient protection for the general public to wear, thus saving N95 masks and surgical masks for our essential service workers?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: First off, you’ll note that in all of the CDC, and the Canadian and Nova Scotian guidance, nobody said wear a surgical mask, and that’s very important. What they have said is non-medical masks or face coverings.
The reason they said that is because there is a possibility that we will not have enough of the medical masks for the people who need them in the hospitals as well. It’s a different type of environment in hospitals. You don’t really need a medical mask outside to protect your droplets from going towards someone else and that’s the purpose of these non-medical masks.
We don’t know the best material for them to be made out of and that is part of the reason that when the viral temperature around us – the viral weather around us – didn’t suggest wearing a mask, we didn’t say to wear it, because we are not certain what the best material is.
It has to be a good balance between breathable, so that you are not causing yourself difficulty breathing and something that doesn’t get wet and collapse onto your face too quickly. It also has to be woven tightly enough to keep any viral particles or big droplets from getting out.
There are lots of scientific experiments going on at different universities trying out different fabrics, but honestly right now we don’t know. For those rare times when you are going outside your home, one of the cloth hand-sewn masks is just as good as some of the other things that people have. There have been some funny things showing up on the internet with people wearing things on their face.
3. What’s the point of wearing a face mask, if you can contract the virus through your eyes?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: It comes back to the fact that we are reducing, not preventing the spread of this virus. To prevent the spread of this virus, we need to stay away from each other. A face mask is not a prevention mechanism, it is a reduction mechanism for infection.
So, if you touch your eyes, or get too close to someone who has other droplets, then your eyes may be a way to become infected. So not touching your face is still important. Not touching your mask and then touching your eyes is still important. Staying away from people as much as possible and staying home are still the prevention mechanisms. Masks are only a reducer.
4. Should I take my mother/father out of the senior residence and bring her/him home? What would be safest for her/him and us?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: If you can take a relative home and you have the ability and capacity to care for them very well, that may be an option for you. The one stipulation or consideration I think people should make is, number one, can you take your loved one home safely? That’s very important.
It’s a good idea to have that conversation with the care providers at the long-term care facilities or the homes where these folks are. Have a conversation with them about what their real care needs are before you consider that.
Also, if there is already someone in the direct area around your loved one who is infected, we don’t necessarily recommend taking people from where they are and bringing them into the community. That might not be a great idea. It’s better that that person stay where they are and there will be appropriate precautions taken at that site to prevent that person from becoming infected.
So, in short, if you can safely take your loved one home, that’s not an unreasonable idea and it would be probably a good idea for your loved one to be near loved ones. But, if there is already some sort of infection in the community where they are living, it is really best to check with public health first before you consider doing something like that.
5. With Easter coming, is it OK to gather with family other than my immediate family?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: From a public health perspective, we have been told no gatherings with over five people. People really should be staying at home and staying within their own household units.
I am firmly and thoroughly in agreement with that public health directive. Which means, unfortunately, that the Easter Bunny may have to come virtually this year.
I recognize that it is tough for people, but right now, out of all the time in this pandemic, we really have an opportunity to do things well. It is not time to pull back and I would say, unfortunately, it’s going to be a virtual Easter for you.
6. Can people who have been self-isolating for 14 days see each other? Do we still have to stay six feet away?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: They key is to see almost no one. I go to work, I come home and I sit in my house. I don’t think we should socially isolate ourselves, but we should physically distance ourselves, and so the take-home message is, this is not forever.
I recognize you want to see and hear and talk to people, but do that virtually. I really don’t recommend getting together socially. Full stop. Period. And that’s not one of those things where there is an exception right now. If we do this wrong in the next couple of weeks, as we head towards a peak for us, we are going to be in big trouble. I really don’t think that Nova Scotians want to be that person that’s the missing piece to completing our isolation puzzle. So stay away.
7. Do people who have had the pneumonia vaccine have any additional protection from COVID-19?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: Vaccines are amazing in that they very specifically prevent you from getting a particular infection.
In the case of the pneumonia vaccine, it’s from the bacteria that causes pneumonia that is in the community. Unfortunately, this is a virus and the vaccine won’t directly protect you from getting a COVID-19 related-lung infection, but it will keep you from getting a bacterial infection on top of a viral infection. That could be very, very damaging and likely fatal in this particular case.
So the pneumonia shot won’t directly protect you, but indirectly it is a great thing to have if you’ve already had it, because it will likely protect you from getting two infections together, and that would be bad.
8. Are people who have recovered still contagious?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: We are working on that one. So we’ve all seen the reports of people whose symptoms have gotten better, they feel better, but in some situations where they get tested – either for a research study somewhere or for another reason in other countries – they’ve been found to still have a positive swab. Meaning, that there is DNA or RNA from the virus in the back of their throat or nose.
What that means in terms of, are they still infectious, isn’t clear. It could be that these are just dead bits of the virus, that aren’t actually doing anything, that are leftovers in the back of the throat. Or, it could mean that it is still dividing virus.
We don’t know, but if we base what we know from other infections, we know that it is likely that after you recover, even if there is a little bit of virus back there, it is not highly infectious. It may not be completely uninfectious, but it is not highly infectious, and therefore if there is any ability to be contagious, it is probably very, very low.
9. If someone is symptomatic and tests positive, when do we say it is safe for those people to return to work? Particularly essential services.
Dr. Lisa Barrett: The guidance is really changing quite rapidly about when you can go back to work. If there’s one thing that I’ve said over this pandemic, is expect anything, but always expect change.
First thing, check with your public health office about when you can go back to work and also check the website that Nova Scotia has quite frequently. It will have some guidance there for when people can go back to work, but it really is key to check and find out exactly when.
The current set of information, particularly for essential workers like healthcare workers, is based on a combination of information out of the U.S. and from Canada. It says that you have to be at least seven days from the time that you started to have symptoms and then a consecutive three days, one after the other, where you feel better each day before you can go back to work. That may change over time and you definitely have to check before you go back to work.
10. Could it be possible, there are two strains of the COVID-19 virus, one mild and the other vicious?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: There do seem to be different strains and there is a drift in the virus between the different countries as it moves its way through. There haven’t been huge changes in the virus that we know of to date, but the answer to the question is not quite clear yet.
We’ve only had a few months with this virus, but it’s more likely that the virus is very similar. It’s the underlying health of the person that the virus infects that’s more a factor as to how sick you get and what other genetic factors you have in your immune system that cause that overreaction of your immune system in the lungs that makes some people so sick.
11. Is it possible that the sickness that was going around in January and February could have been COVID-19?
Dr. Lisa Barrett: Across the country and locally, people will begin, after we are through this acute and very sort of busy phase, to look back at some of the lab specimens that have been kept for other reasons from before this happened.
They will see if we can detect any evidence that our immune systems have seen this virus before the February-March time period and that’s how we are going to try and sort some of that out.