What you need to know about novel coronavirus (COVID-19)

A Q&A with Dr. Jennie Johnstone, Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Sinai Health
Feb. 24, 2020
coronavirus (COVID-19)


Ontario has only had a few confirmed cases of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) but the amount of media on the topic would suggest we should be worried.  Can you provide some perspective?
As this is a new virus, it takes some time for scientists to learn about the symptoms it causes and how it spreads. It’s understandable for people to experience worry in a situation like this where we don’t have all these answers right away.
However, public health experts continue to advise that at this time the risk in Canada remains low. It’s also important for people to know that health care providers are well prepared to deal with this situation and are now taking additional precautions.  For example, hospitals already have screening in place for respiratory illnesses such as influenza. Additional measures have been added to quickly and safely screen, isolate and test patients as recommended in guidance documents provided by the Ministry of Health in Ontario.
What can I do to protect myself and my family from getting novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Coronaviruses spread from person to person in tiny droplets of moisture expelled when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes. The best way to protect ourselves and others is with the same steps that help prevent the spread of colds or influenza:
Should I avoid travelling altogether, or only to certain countries?
For the latest travel advisories, visit the Government of Canada’s websiteto help inform any decisions about travel.


Is anyone more at risk than others?
While we are still learning about novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the evidence available so far suggests that older adults and people with existing health conditions who become infected with the virus are at greater risk of experiencing severe symptoms such as pneumonia and difficulty breathing.
Will the flu shot help protect me/my family from getting novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Influenza and novel coronavirus (COVID-19) share some similarities. They are both respiratory illnesses caused by viruses. But they are caused by different kinds of viruses. This means that while the flu shot provides protection against the influenza virus, it cannot provide protection against coronaviruses like COVID-19.
It’s a good idea to get the flu shot and Health Canada recommends the annual flu shot for anyone over six months of age. Flu season is not yet over and influenza can cause serious illness. Children under five, older adults, people with chronic health conditions and people who are pregnant are most at risk of experiencing severe symptoms from influenza.
How does the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) compare to SARS? Why is it so deadly?
SARS and COVID-19, are both coronaviruses, a group of viruses known to cause colds and pneumonia. Both originated in China and likely came from animals. The main difference between the two is that the mortality rate for COVID-19 appears to be much lower than the SARS virus.
What did Sinai Health learn from its experience with SARS in 2003?
Hospitals across Ontario learned a lot from the SARS outbreak and are much more prepared for COVID-19. We have already been able to put measures in place to quickly screen for patients who have symptoms of a viral respiratory infection along with a recent travel history to areas where COVID-19 is circulating.
There is also much better knowledge-sharing between scientists and public health experts around the world now than there was in 2003. This enables us to closely monitor the situation so that we can adjust our response and our preparations as needed.
What precautions has Sinai Health put in place to keep patients and staff safe?
Our hospitals already have standard procedures in place to screen patients for respiratory infection, including influenza. It’s also standard practice for nurses and doctors to wear protective equipment when caring for patients with acute viral respiratory symptoms to ensure they are not at risk of becoming infected.
We now have additional screening in place to quickly identify patients who need to be further assessed and tested for COVID-19 due to respiratory symptoms and recent travel history. This screening protocol enables us to immediately take the necessary safety precautions to prevent the potential spread of infection.
What happens if a patient arrives at the hospital with a suspected case of novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?
Any patient who arrives in the Emergency Department or other outpatient clinic with acute viral respiratory symptoms and a relevant travel history will be quickly separated from other patients and placed in an isolation room. Health care professionals would then wear personal protective equipment while conducting further assessment or testing or while providing care for the patient.
How have we used our learnings from SARS to redesign critical areas such as the Emergency Department and Intensive Care Unit via Renew Sinai to improve our ability to handle another epidemic and keep patients and staff safe?
Infection prevention and control is an important factor in any hospital redevelopment project. Everything from air-flow, to the materials we use, to the floor plans for waiting rooms, triage areas and patient rooms needs to be carefully considered through this lens. The Renew Sinai project is enabling us to re-design these clinical areas to better support current best practices in infection prevention and control.
* The COVID-19 outbreak is an evolving situation and information is changing rapidly. The information in this article is current as of February 24, 2020.