With new, more contagious COVID-19 variants circulating across the country, health officials are warning Canadians to stay vigilant, keep their distance and wear a mask.
But what about gathering outside? Because the variants can be more transmissible, do people have to wear masks more frequently outdoors or keep more than two metres apart?
Although experts are torn on this answer, there is one consistent message: gathering outdoors is still much safer than congregating indoors.
Socializing outdoors is safer
According to Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, other infectious diseases have shown they do not evolve to become more contagious outside. In fact, he said with many airborne infections, health officials put clinics outdoors because they are safer.
“If you just told people to stay indoors for three months, you are going to see indoor events,” he said, stressing that the past year has shown that people still break the rules and gather inside.
So if people are going to be socializing, it might as well be outside, he said, adding that this would drastically cut transmission rates.
Other experts agree.
Last month, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, warned people to stay vigilant when socializing outside as they can still get infected with the virus.
Hinshaw reminds Albertans there is still risk of COVID-19 transmission outside
“Socializing outside is absolutely safer than socializing inside,” Hinshaw said at a press conference on March 24. “If people are outside and they are neither distanced nor wearing masks, then just being outside is not sufficient to prevent spread.”
Hinshaw said Alberta officials have seen cases where individuals are in close proximity to one another for long periods of time, such as going on a long walk together and are not distanced or masked.
“And over the course for that long period of time that they are close together talking, there has been some transmission reported,” she said. “If people are gathering outside for social gatherings, they should be very mindful of being distanced or masked. If you wanted to be completely safe you can do both.”
Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security in Baltimore, previously told Global News that outdoor activities are still a safer way to protect yourself from the variants.
“In general, activities that are performed outdoors are much less risky than indoors,” he said. “I think it’s a way to allow people to get together and kind of reduce the harm that the virus causes while also reducing the harm that social isolation is causing for some people.”
He explained that although the virus, including the variants, transmits less efficiently outdoors, it does not mean you are completely safe from it.
“I think the variants tell you that you still need to be careful, that you still need to think about wearing a mask and being six feet apart,” he said.
Social distancing outdoors
Benoit Barbeau, a virology expert at the Université du Quebec à Montréal, told Global News that because the new variants are more transmissible, it is possible that people may have to distance more than two metres, even outside.
“With these variants around, the possibility that you’ll get infected is higher than what it used to be,” Barbeau said. “If you decide to go for a walk, try even perhaps to further your distance, that would be helpful,” he said.
Why 2-metre (6-feet) physical distancing is the absolute minimum
However, Chagla believes the same distancing rules from last spring and summer still apply this year.
As long as there is two-metre distancing, he said the risk of transmitting COVID-19 is still “very, very low.”
“As long as there is a reasonable distancing, like two metres, and you do not face people for a prolonged period and there’s no hugging, or kissing, it’s still safer than indoors,” he said.
Wearing masks outdoors
As with social distancing, Chagla said the same rules apply for mask-wearing outside — with or without the variants.
Rather than mandating mask use outdoors, he argued it’s better to inform people about when to wear them — for example at recreational public facilities, where there is a higher risk compared to just walking on the street.
“Outdoor transmission is not that common and tends to be associated with close contact for a prolonged amount of time with others,” he said.
Chagla said masks can be helpful during outdoor protests, for example, when people are close together and shouting. But they’re likely not necessary when passing by someone on a sidewalk.
As is the case with the flu, studies suggest that respiratory droplets that transmit COVID-19 tend to survive longer in cold, dry air and low humidity. So there is a slightly higher risk of getting COVID-19 outdoors in winter than summer, Chagla said. But ventilation is optimal outside, coupled with the ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, which has some sterilizing effect, he added.
What about vaccinated people?
More than 6.6 million Canadians have been inoculated with at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. And that number is only going to rise as the government ramps up its vaccine distribution over the next few months.
Chagla said if someone has received two doses of the vaccine, say from Pfizer, that person should be safe to socialize outside with another vaccinated person.
However, if the individual has only been given one shot, he argued that the two-metre distancing rule and mask-wearing (when needed) still applies when outside.
“One dose still reduces transmissions and hospitalization rates, but people probably still shouldn’t be coming up close and hugging. You would want another layer of protection, like a mask.”
But of course, with the new variants circulating around, health officials are still researching the effectiveness of vaccines against them. Experts fear new variants may be resistant to existing vaccines and treatment.
On April 1, Pfizer said updated trial data showed that in first clinical results, its vaccine effectively protected against currently circulating variants, such as the B.1.351 strain that first emerged in South Africa.
However, Pfizer also reiterated there would likely be a future need for booster shots that specifically address new variants.
U.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna said last month that while its two-dose regimen is expected to be protective against the variants, it will test an additional booster dose against emerging strains.
— With files from Global News’ Rachael D’Amore, Dan Spector and Saba Aziz
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