For weeks, health officials across the country have been urging Canadians to practise social distancing and avoid public gatherings in an attempt to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The disease caused by the virus — COVID-19 — has infected more than 201,000 people worldwide and killed over 8,000.
In Canada, as of 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, 569 people had been infected with COVID-19 and eight people had died.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday echoed the advice of health authorities, urging Canadians to practise social distancing, saying the window to control the spread of the disease was closing.
“As much as possible, stay home,” he said. “Don’t go out unless you absolutely have to.”
But how long can Canadians expect to be practising social distancing and is it effective?
Here’s what experts say.
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How long will Canadians need to practise social distancing?
Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, said we can expect this to go on until we see a decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases.
“What we need to see is that new cases are decreasing over time, but we also want to be conscious that loosening of the social distancing recommendations and restrictions too quickly could result in a resurgence of transmission,” he wrote in an email to Global News.
He said recent models have predicted long periods of time for this outbreak, some greater than 12 months.
“However, there have been arguments that these models don’t take into account additional factors that are implemented to curb transmission,” he wrote.
He said ultimately, there is no “definitive timeline” as the situation will “continue to be dynamic and based on overall trends that can’t be defined within very short periods of time.”
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Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital, told Global News the length of time we spend social distancing is “completely dependent on us.”
“It’s completely dependent on how we implement these suggestions,” Bogoch said. “Are we going to actually do what it takes to practise these social distancing measures and truly flatten the curve and mitigate the spread of this infection in the country?“
He said if Canadians do practise the social distancing measures, we may start to see the benefits and may be able to “slowly and carefully take our foot off the gas pedal in the coming months.”
“I would say plural, in the coming two-ish or more months,” he said. “Depending on how well we do.”
What’s more, Kindrachuk said the sooner Canadians heed the advice of health authorities and practise social distancing, the sooner it will be over.
“This virus relies on people transmitting it between each other,” he said. “In the absence of vaccines or therapeutics, our greatest defence against this virus is to take away the ability for it to be spread from person to person. This is easier to do when there are fewer overall cases in the community.”
Has it worked elsewhere?
Bogoch said both China and South Korea have experienced “tremendous benefits” from their social distancing policies.
Across China, more than 50 million people were placed under strict quarantine as the virus spread. Travel into and out of cities was cut, and schools and businesses were shuttered as health officials scrambled to contain the disease.
South Korea implemented similar measures in an effort to limit the virus’s spread.
“They’re starting to relax some of their social distancing policies now,” Bogoch said. “Life is slowly returning back to normal.”
He said in both cases, the countries implemented measures for around two and a half months.
“So if we do well, we could be in the same boat,” he said.
Kindrachuk, too, said we have already seen “indications of success” of social distancing in Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore.
“While these are not the only measures that were employed, they appeared to have a central role in curbing transmission,” he said. “China was able to limit the spread as well through massive quarantine procedures in Hubei province as well.”
How dire is the situation in Canada?
On Sunday, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer said the window for Canada to control the spread of the virus and keep it at a level that Canada’s health-care system can manage is closing.
But how much time do we have?
Kindrachuk said that is something “we don’t know.”
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“Think of this as a hurricane warning without any accompanying radar to give us a timeline of when it will hit,” he said. “We know that the virus will spread across Canada. We don’t know exactly how cases will continue to increase across the country, though we know that they will, given that the virus is here.”
However, he said we do have the opportunity to try and change the total timeline for transmission by practising social distancing, testing and tracing the contacts of those who are infected.
Dr. Craig Janes, a professor at the University of Waterloo School of Public Health and Health Systems, said the situation in Canada is “dire.”
“This is one of the complex things socially about the epidemic is that I think for many people we say, ‘Wait a minute, we don’t see many cases. It just doesn’t seem that serious,’” he said. “But based on the information we have from China, from Italy and that sort of thing, it is dire. And we need to be doing all this now.”
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He said what we do now to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 will have an “enormous impact” on reducing the number of people who die, and on the health-care system’s ability to treat those who are sick.
Bogoch said the “ball is in our court” when it comes to limiting the spread of the virus.
“The messaging is clear, there should be no ambiguity on what we should and shouldn’t be doing now as individuals, businesses and also as the government,” he said. “Everyone has a job to do.”
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