It's been two full weeks since the coronavirus pandemic first took our country by storm. Back in early March, when cases began to skyrocket across Canada, federal and provincial governments scrambled to contain the growing outbreaks. New emergency policies were introduced almost every day; each one seemingly stricter than the last. Now, the entire nation waits in isolation, and a single prevailing question remains on everyone's minds: how long will this go on for?
Unfortunately, there is still no definitive answer. Trudeau says he's been asked that question every day since the countrywide shutdowns and his response is still the same: "We don't know yet."
At this point, all we have to go on are the estimations given by outbreak models and the timelines of other countries that experienced waves of infection before ours did. While such observations are in no way conclusive, they can at least give us a rough idea of how long we can expect our lives to continue this way.
Researchers at the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph say Canadians may be in for several more weeks of social distancing and shutdowns. According to their outbreak models, 32 weeks may be enough time to curb deaths and keep hospitals from being overrun by patients in need of critical care, but it is still not enough time to fully stop the spread of the virus.
"Aggressive social distancing for 32 weeks does act to slow transmission significantly and essentially flatten the curve," says Dr. Amy Greer, the research chair in Population Disease Modeling at the University of Guelph.
However, "aggressive" is the keyword here: if we were to ease up on protective measures by even a little bit—say, every four weeks or so— then community transmission would restart and we'd have to extend the social distancing and shutdowns for longer.
That's why researchers are not claiming 32 weeks to be the magic number. Ashleigh Tuite, a research epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana school of public health, is among many experts who do not advocate for that time frame. Based on her team's findings, she says it could be months or even years before we see a total wind-down of the virus.
“We looked as far as 32 weeks. You’re still going to have a lot of people infected, and you’re still going to have a number of people requiring hospitalization beyond what we think our current health care system can support,” Tuite said.
Some studies, including one led by epidemiologist Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College in London, say that social distancing, home isolation, and shutdowns should continue for 12 to 18 months for the optimal results. Such a time frame is relatively consistent with what was seen in the Wuhan timeline.
At its onset, Wuhan, China was the global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. An uncontrollable rise in cases led to a full lockdown on January 23, as well as the enforcement of some of the most severe restrictions seen in any affected city. Just this week, Chinese officials announced that they are expecting to slowly lift restrictions beginning April 8, which means the city would have been aggressively social distancing for about 11 weeks.
"Twenty-eight days from now, knock on wood, Wuhan would be able to declare the outbreak over," says Dr. Ross Upshur, a pandemic bioethicist at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health. "So, if you go from the last week of January to four weeks from today, that gives you the best case interval of bringing this under control."
That said, it is still going to be some time before our lives return to normal. The good news is that our social distancing efforts are actually starting to work. In his daily press conference held on Saturday, Trudeau referred to a slowing number of cases in British Columbia that indicated the flattening of the curve.
“We need you to continue to stay home. Obviously, there are sacrifices we are all making, but it is beginning to work.”
Dr. Bonnie Henry, British Columbia's health officer, added to the PM's optimism by saying such progress was a "glimmer of hope," with social distancing efforts in the province contributing to a decline in infection rates by as much as half.
At the end of the day, how long we will need to continue social distancing will depend on how well we cooperate with the public health measures that were designed to protect us. We've heard time and time again that the coronavirus is nothing like the flu and that no one, not even the young or the healthy, is safe from the dangers of its infection.
It's time we all take this coronavirus pandemic seriously. We must do our part to ensure that the situation doesn't get any worse. Trudeau said it best: "If you want things to get back to normal, stay home."
Photo by Patrick Tomasso
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