Coronavirus: How do I keep my family safe?

Dr Jason Gurney

More than 2000 people have died of coronavirus and half the population of China have faced travel restrictions in a desperate bid to halt the spread of the disease. Mahurangi Matters asked Mahurangi epidemiologist Dr Jason Gurney on the risks to New Zealand and how young families can protect themselves …

Q. As we go to press, coronavirus has spread to 27 countries beyond China. How worried should we be in New Zealand?
It is natural to feel scared when novel diseases emerge – particularly when they impact so many people. In New Zealand, we are very lucky to be naturally protected from these diseases due to our remote island status – but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be vigilant and do what we need to do to minimise the risks.

Q. If one of my children has seen something in the news about coronavirus and is getting anxious what can I say to put their mind at rest?
Firstly, it’s important to remember that we have not had any confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus (known as COVID-19) in New Zealand just yet. Secondly, even if the disease does arrive here, it’s worth reminding your child that the chances of them actually getting the disease are likely very small – and even if they get the illness, the chances of dying from it are also really small. Nevertheless, COVID-19 has impacted a lot of lives, which is why it is all over the news. Your child is very unlikely to benefit from hearing this news every day, so the more you can do to shield them from it the better.

Q. Suppose my child is sitting next to a Chinese student at school. Should I be concerned?
There is no need for concern. Firstly, if the child has recently arrived from areas of China where the outbreak occurred, then the New Zealand Government has put steps in place to protect the wider population. For example, through the quarantine base at Whangaparaoa. Secondly, if the child has arrived from a part of China that is outside the outbreak zone, then the chances that they are infected are extremely remote. As a community, we all need to ensure that we do not use this outbreak as a reason to ostracise the Chinese, or to treat them with any less dignity or respect than that afforded to anyone else. We should all be aware of our cultural biases and do what we can to support those who might be the target of unjustifiable angst.

Q. Is there anything a child or indeed any individual can do to protect themselves and others?
The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads through droplets, so in reality our best hope is to do the things that we should be doing to prevent the spread of other more immediately relevant diseases like influenza. Things like proper hand washing, and practicing good cough and sneeze etiquette – in other words coughing or sneezing into a tissue or into our elbow and away from others.

Q. There are a lot of ads appearing in email inboxes promoting the use of face masks in the wake of the coronavirus. Is it worth getting masks for my family?
If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with a suspected COVID-19 infection. You might consider wearing a mask if you are coughing or sneezing. I would not necessarily advise people to do that in New Zealand at this stage, but we may need to rethink this if there was a serious outbreak of coronavirus in New Zealand.

Q. Given the ease with which the coronavirus appears to spread, are there any general lessons we can learn about preventing transmission of disease?
The principal symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, coughing and difficulty breathing – symptoms also shared by other more immediately relevant diseases like influenza. If your child has these symptoms, then they should see a doctor. It’s always best to keep kids with coughs, runny noses and other respiratory symptoms away from school, to prevent the spread of whatever illness is causing these symptoms. When considering whether to send their child to school, parents should be thinking about what is best for the wider class, school and community – not just what is best for them or their child.

Q. Beyond hand washing and watching how we cough and sneeze, what other basic hygiene rules should we be teaching our children?
Our kids have a tendency to rush boring things like hygiene – my own kids make me cringe by effectively “showing” their hands to the water after finishing their business in the toilet! My advice: take some time this week to stand with your kids and show them how to properly rinse and wash their hands with soap and warm water. Teach them the three key steps of proper hand washing: first, we scrub our hands – including in between our fingers – with soap to pick up all those germs. The germs stick to the soapy mixture, which is why soap is so important to proper hand washing. Second, we rinse all the soap off to get rid of all those germs. Lastly, we dry our hands properly. These three simple steps – conducted before meals, using the toilet or any other dirty activities – are really important ways that we can stop the spread of infectious diseases.

Q. Back in 2003, there was a similar concern over a SARS outbreak in China. But you don’t hear much about SARS now. Is the coronavirus similarly likely to die out, or does it pose a more severe threat than SARS?
It’s still very early to tell what is going to happen with this illness. Experts believe that it will probably follow a similar pattern to influenza – in other words, its burden might extend a lot longer than the SARS outbreak.

Q. Do you think the NZ Government is doing enough to stop the disease entering New Zealand? Could it be doing more? Can we hope to keep the disease out of New Zealand or is it inevitable that it will come here?
The Government has a pandemic plan and is currently putting that into operation. We can always be doing more – but our Government has enacted some really critical steps, like travel restrictions and other border control measures to keep the disease out of New Zealand. That’s our biggest objective: to keep the disease out entirely, or at least keep it out for as long as possible. The more time we can buy before the disease arrives is more time that we have to learn about this disease, how to contain it and how to prevent or treat it. In terms of whether it is inevitable that the disease will arrive in New Zealand, only time will tell.

Q. Could coronavirus have the kind of impact it is having in China or are we better protected here?
Experts agree that our key preparatory steps include … a) increased public awareness of the importance of staying home when you’re sick, especially with respiratory illnesses; b) increased presence of alcohol sanitisers at health facilities; and c) increased public awareness of proper hand washing practices and cough/sneeze etiquette. If the disease does arrive in New Zealand, our current best defence is to do exactly what we should be doing to prevent other diseases like influenza. As mentioned earlier, we have natural border protection, which is very much to our advantage. We are also less densely-populated than some parts of China, which is an additional advantage.