There is a COVID-19 vaccine on the horizon. But first, winter.
We’ve been hearing the warnings for weeks. It’s going to be a long, hard few months.
People who live in Canada fashion themselves as cold weather warriors — able to withstand -20 C temperatures. This year, that could be an especially good thing.
The advice from medical experts is to resist retreating indoors where COVID-19 is much more easily transmitted. Bundle up, mask up if necessary, and get outside as much as possible.
“You know, if you’ve ever wanted to learn broomball, this is your chance,” said Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and an assistant professor at McGill University.
But what about masks in winter? Do they still work if they get wet? Do you really need to wear them outside anyway?
Here’s some advice for how best to tackle the coming winter pandemic months.
Will my mask work if it gets wet and/or freezes?
The short answer is probably not. Oughton, officials from Health Canada and the Centers for Disease Control in the United States pretty much agree that once a mask gets wet, it’s no longer fully effective.
And that’s why you should always have back-up masks.
There is no concrete, scientific data on mask efficacy in cold weather. However, when you breathe through a mask in cold conditions, the moisture from your warm breath collects on the mask. It tends to stay warm enough on the inside due to your body temperature to remain liquid, but will freeze on the outside.
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That leads to two mask issues Oughton said: they become harder to breathe through; and become less effective at “capturing respiratory droplets and preventing them from leaving the proximity of someone’s mouth and nose.”
But that doesn’t mean they are completely useless, according to Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and an associate professor at McMaster University.
“Masks offer a little bit more [protection], particularly in those settings where people are bunched up outdoors, where there may be a bit more risk of transmission.”
Oughton said if you are going to wear a mask outdoors in the cold for a long period of time, you should have two or three back-ups, so you can keep a dry one on.
And most important: make sure the mask is cloth. The paper kind — the surgical style ones — degrade and tear far more easily when they get wet, said Oughton.
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Do you really need a mask out in the cold?
It depends on the circumstances.
Being outdoors while observing proper distancing measures is “really, really protective” on its own, according to Chagla. He said the documented cases of outdoor transmission of COVID-19 have involved situations like barbecues or people watching a sports event, gathered together for longer periods of time.
For activities like going for a walk in your neighbourhood or skating on a not-too-crowded rink, he said the risk of transmission is very low. But he does advise that if you are going in and out of stores, or getting on and off transit while doing errands, it is best to just keep the mask on the whole time to minimize touching the mask and potential contamination.
The advice is the same if you are planning to gather with others over the holidays for an outdoor gift exchange or short visit. If you can maintain distance, you should be fine as long as there is no eating and drinking or singing, all of which create more droplets in the air. If you’re going to be closer, exchanging gifts perhaps, best to put on a mask.
Is a scarf a good alternative to a mask?
No. Medical experts point out that there is too much variation in scarves and neck gaiters for them to be used as masks. Stitching can be too loose and the material too thin to be an effective barrier to potentially infected droplets — both going out or coming in.
But both physicians agree it might keep your mask from freezing and therefore be more comfortable for the wearer to put a scarf up over it.
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Unfortunately, people tend to pull their mask aside or off when they sneeze or cough, which kind of defeats the purpose of it, Chagla said.
“It is horrible to sneeze in a mask,” he said. “I give you that.” But he urges people to make sure they are in an area away from people if they are going to pull it off to sneeze, or even to blow their nose, as that is one of the best ways to spread infection.
And be careful when you pull your mask aside to blow your nose. Don’t let it get snotty, both doctors say, and after blowing your nose, sanitize your hands before you replace your mask.
So with all the issues with masks, is it best just to stay indoors this winter?
The resounding answer to this one is no. On the contrary.
“The indoor stuff is like a hundred times more worrisome than the outdoor stuff,” Chagla said.
He cites factors including poor ventilation, crowded rooms, people being together for prolonged periods of time, eating and drinking together.
He said this year, people are going to have to change the way they think about socializing if they don’t want to just get stuck for months with the people they live with or having nothing but virtual get-togethers.
“I think we have to start changing our attitudes and saying the outdoors is going to be the way. We just have to make it appropriate for people to do it.”
Municipalities across the country are coming up with guidelines for outdoor activities, such as skating, to make sure they don’t get too crowded. Many are restricting the number of people allowed on the ice at any given time in order to better maintain a safe distance between skaters, with some bringing in online pre-registration to book ice time.
If you go, change your skates in the car or out on a bench, rather than in a public hut, Oughton said.
Among other outdoor measures, Toronto is also adding an additional 60 kilometres of paved recreational trails and pathways with snow maintenance and is encouraging communities to apply for permits to build and maintain new rinks.
The City of Calgary is also adding to its outdoor options with the North Glenmore Ice Trail, where people can skate 730 metres of connected track and the installation of fire pits in key spots around the city.
Todd Reichardt, a Calgary parks manager, said the plans should enable people to maintain social distance and make the most of the season.
“There’s something about being outside when it’s cold and you smell like wood smoke,” he said. “It just puts a smile on people’s faces.”
In Manitoba, ski resorts have been working on plans to make skiing a safe pandemic activity, while Montreal is setting up cross-country ski trails at each of the city’s large parks, as well as trails for snowshoeing and walking.
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