Coronavirus FAQ: Everything parents and pregnant women should know

Should we still travel? Why isn't my daycare worried? Am I at higher risk because I'm pregnant? And how do I talk to my kids about it? We've got answers.

Washing hands is the best defence against any virus, including coronavirus. Photo: iStock photo

It’s impossible to avoid news of the coronavirus outbreak, which so far has infected more than 28,000 people, mostly in China, and killed 565. The media can’t get enough of the horror stories, and with Canadians being flown out of Wuhan, and others quarantined on a cruise ship, it’s natural to feel anxious.

But as parents know, freaking out doesn’t get us very far. So to help give perspective on the coronavirus, we took parents’ top concerns straight to the experts. Here’s what you need to know:

How worried should I be?

Actually, not very worried, says Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician at Toronto General Hospital. Despite the alarming headlines, “the risk of catching the virus in Canada is close to zero percent,” he says. That’s because systems are in place to catch cases of coronavirus here before they can spread, and they have already shown to be effective. As of press time, seven cases had been confirmed in Canada–with little to no spread from them–and around 100 other cases have been ruled out in Ontario alone. That shows that public health authorities are being vigilant about monitoring and testing anyone who may have had contact with the virus, to make sure it doesn’t become a concern for Canadians.

We have travel plans coming up. Should we change them? 

Currently, the Canadian government is recommending Canadians avoid all travel to Hubei province in China and to avoid all non-essential travel to other provinces in China. So far, the virus is contained enough in other nearby countries that the government isn’t concerned about travel to places like Thailand. That could change, however, so it’s a good idea to stay up to date with travel advisories, says Bogoch.

Bogoch also doesn’t recommend wearing a mask on a flight to protect yourself. “They don’t significantly reduce your risk of getting an infection,” he says. Regular surgical masks offer scant protection from viruses and n95 masks are difficult to properly fit and hard to breathe in, which is why they’re only recommended for frontline health workers whose risk outweighs the major inconvenience. Plus, no matter what mask you wear, you’re likely to end up fiddling around with it, and touching your mouth increases your risk of catching a virus and getting sick.

My daycare/school isn’t taking any extra precautions. Should I be concerned?

A young boy laying down on a bed in his pjs How to know when your kid is too sick for schoolThe short answer is no, says Bogoch. Daycares and schools are taking their cue from public health authorities and they say there is currently no reason to worry about the coronavirus spreading in daycares, schools or any public place in Canada. “I think it’s important to be pragmatic and make decisions based on fact,” he adds. That said, kids should always be encouraged to wash their hands often during the day, and especially before they eat.

I’m pregnant. Should I be taking extra precautions?

As of yet, we don’t know if pregnant women are more susceptible to this new coronavirus, or if they can pass it on to the fetus, Bogoch says. Typically, however, respiratory viruses aren’t passed through the placenta. While there was a recent report of a newborn who tested positive for the virus in China, it’s more likely the newborn was exposed at birth.

Moreover, pregnant women don’t need to take extra precautions to avoid the coronavirus because at the moment it’s not spreading in Canada.

That said, pregnant women are more likely to have weaker immune systems, so it’s a good idea to generally be more careful about hand washing. The number one virus to worry about now is influenza, and the best way to protect yourself is to get the flu shot, says Bogoch. “We know that pregnant women can have more severe outcomes with influenza, including hospitalization,” he says.

My kids have noticed people wearing masks. What should I tell them, without freaking them out?

Many people wear a mask to avoid passing an illness on to others. So you might start with that explanation, suggests Alyson Schafer, a family counsellor and author of several parenting books. “You could say they might have a cold and they’re wanting to be responsible, to make sure they don’t pass it on to anyone else.” It’s a positive message for kids, and a good segue way into other strategies for preventing germ sharing, like coughing into your elbow and washing your hands frequently. If you have an older kid who’s more curious, you could add that healthy people might also wear a mask to protect themselves from bacteria or viruses. If you say “they just want to be extra cautious,” that sends the message that masks are not a requirement, without stigmatizing the mask wearer.

My kid said that Chinese people are spreading this virus. How do I respond?

It’s important to make it clear that while this virus was discovered in China, other viruses emerge out of other places (like North America, in the case of H1N1). To show the dangers of associating a virus with an ethnicity, Schafer recommends encouraging your child to put themselves in the shoes of someone who’s stereotyped. “Imagine you’re being picked on and called names because of a disease that originated in a country your grandparents were born in,” for example. Draw attention to how silly it is to stereotype and how it feels to be stereotyped, says Schafer. This could be a good opportunity to call out other prejudices that your child or your child’s peers might face.

In addition, “walk the talk,” says Schafer. Many Chinese Canadian businesses were hit hard during SARS, as people erroneously worried they were at risk of getting the virus at stores or restaurants frequented by Asian people. So now’s a great time to go out as a family to your favourite Chinese restaurant, she suggests, or any Chinese-owned business, for that matter.

My kids are Chinese Canadian and I worry this virus is making them see their ancestral home negatively. What should I do?

There are so many positives to focus on. There are the Chinese health workers who are putting in long hours to care for the sick and to prevent the spread of the disease to others. There are volunteers delivering groceries to people who can’t get to stores because public transit has been shut down. There are the incredible efforts of all the people who worked day and night to build a hospital in only 10 days. Look past the panic-inducing stories, and you’ll find way more everyday stories of heroism and kindness.

OK, but I’m still worried this might become a bigger deal in Canada. How likely is that?

Unfortunately, the answer is we really don’t know. Since this coronavirus is in the same family as SARS, many are making comparisons to the SARS outbreak. That outbreak infected 375 Canadians, and 44 of those died. It first started infecting Canadians in March, and Canada, and many other countries, were declared SARS free by the summer. (The summer months aren’t ideal for viruses generally, so some are speculating that weather changes could be key for putting a stop to the spread.)

But this coronavirus is different from SARS. It seems to be more contagious, but less deadly. It’s spreading far faster in China than SARS did, but its mortality rate seems to be far lower—possibly around two percent, and this could be lower if mild and asymptomatic cases aren’t being reported.

So on one hand, the level of contagiousness could make this new coronavirus more difficult to control if the virus does start spreading across the globe. On the other hand, our infection-control measures are far more advanced than they were with SARS, and Bogoch says we have good reason to believe that these measures–early identification as well as quarantine, monitoring and testing of people who may have come into contact with the virus—will continue to work as they have. Thanks to these measures, cases of coronavirus in Canada have so far not spread or only involved limited spread within households.“Our system has been tested many times already,” says Bogoch.

Read more:
4 ways to get the flu virus out of your house
How serious is the flu in kids, really?

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