EDITORS’ NOTE: The news and advice about coronavirus is changing quickly. The information in this story is accurate as of the publishing date. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
With schools, daycares and public facilities across Canada closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, parents across the country are wondering—and feeling anxious— about how extreme “social distancing” restrictions really need to be, especially when it comes to young children at home. Social distancing with a toddler? It can be hard to figure out what to do.
We’re all being urged to stay home, and for most of us, weeks of isolation is nobody’s idea of a break, but it’s the only way to stop the spread of this virus, which has never existed in people before and causes a dangerous disease called COVID-19. And while the most populous provinces are the most vulnerable, including Ontario and British Columbia which have both declared a state of emergency, as of March 18, all 10 provinces have been affected.
We spoke with Toronto paediatrician Joanne Vaughan, who is not an expert in public health or infectious diseases, but still has urgent advice for families in her practice and tips for parents across Canada, regardless of their city or province.
Q: What are you advising parents with regards to playdates and social distancing during this coronavirus outbreak?
Various public health departments are advocating very severe restrictions on those kinds of activities, which would include playdates. Not all parents are seeing playdates as a high-risk activity, but especially if your kids are under six or seven, they’re not going to be able to understand that they need to stay two metres away from their friends. My advice in general is to stay home. Take your kids outside for walks, and let them go on bike rides or scooters, but try to minimize the exposure to other people as much as possible.
We’ve been talking about flattening the curve…and we know that social distancing makes a huge difference. I know it’s painful to have your kids who are four and five stuck in your house all day except for short walks, but to me, it feels like short-term pain for long-term gain. I don’t think you can argue against that.
Q: What is the concern about playdates for younger kids versus older ones?
For myself and the other doctors in our office, we’re all pretty firmly against playdates for any age group. But the younger kids in particular tend to have more snotty noses, and because they stick their fingers in their body parts, they would be at higher risk for spreading things, which is why I think daycares are closed.
Q: What about one-on-one playdates?
The problem is, if you’re getting together with a friend, you don’t know really who else that friend has been in touch with, like, is that friend’s husband working in an office building where there’s thousands of people using the elevator every day? Those kinds of things would trouble me.
Q: What if you’re feeling desperate and isolated? Can you pick one “safe” family to have playdates with?
If you know for sure that both parents are working from home and they’re not seeing anybody else, I guess it’s a strategy to consider, but it’s not ideal. The more people you see, the more likely you are to get sick.
Q: What about meeting people outdoors?
If you’re less than six or seven years old, you’re not going to understand that you can’t go up to your friend and talk to them right in their face.
But an older kid like a teenager might be able to go for a run or a bike ride with a friend and understand that they have to stay a certain distance away. That might be acceptable. You definitely want to get the kids some exercise, so getting outside is still important. If you have very responsible teenagers who can go for a walk and stay two metres apart or be on their bikes and stay two metres apart, I think that that’s OK. But if it’s not, then it’s not advisable.
Q: Should you avoid the playground with toddlers and young kids?
Studies are showing that the coronavirus can live for about three days on surfaces such as plastic and steel. I definitely wouldn’t go to the playground because you don’t know who’s been there ahead of you.
Q: What is your advice for letting grandparents see the kids during this time?
It’s a really hard one because for a lot of grandparents, seeing their grandchildren is what keeps them going. So I know that it would be a hardship. If the grandparents are under 60, which some grandparents are, and healthy, that’s probably OK, but otherwise, I would say no. Kids seem to be more silent vectors, or very mildly sick, and I think it would be a good idea for most grandparents to stay away and that’s what I’ve been telling patients.
Q: Can you bring your kids to the grocery store or take them on public transit?
If you can help it, I would send one family member to the grocery store. I wouldn’t bring kids under 12, for sure. Sometimes you see kids in grocery stores or on the subway putting their lips on stuff. Kids do crazy things.
Q: I know you’re not a public health expert, but how long do you expect these restrictions to last?
To be honest, it feels like we’re standing on quicksand. It’s so hard to answer anything. I’m used to being able to feel confident about what I tell parents and now this is all so new and different. I’m telling people to say informed, follow your local public health department and provincial health ministry on social media and in the news. Johns Hopkins University also has a good coronavirus website.
Q: What else should parents know about this coronavirus and kids?
The initial impression we had been getting out of China was that this was not a big deal for paediatrics, that cases in kids were very mild. But a recent study that looked at more than 2,000 sick children across China showed that a small percentage of cases in babies under one can get seriously sick, requiring hospitalization. It’s not just about passing it to grandparents. Your kid might actually get seriously ill.