With the window closing on the likelihood of containing the spread of the new coronavirus, a University of Guelph expert who is now actively involved in Canada’s pandemic preparations says the aim is to protect our health-care system.

Prof. Amy Greer, Canada Research Chair in Population Disease Modelling, is working with public health officials to use disease transmission models to help the federal government assess how the new coronavirus might spread and how surges in demand on hospitals could play out based on different scenarios.

So far, the evidence suggests the virus causes a mild illness for the vast majority of people, said Greer,  an associate professor in U of G’s Department of Population Medicine.

“But there will be others who will become more ill, and part of the pandemic plan is focused on making sure the health system does not become overwhelmed,” she added.

“The challenge is that the virus appears to be very easily transmitted. Since we won’t have a vaccine, Canadians will likely be asked to reduce their contacts in order to slow the infection’s spread.”

Prof. Amy Greer

That will mean “social distancing,” which could include self-isolation, quarantines or school closures, she said.

“All of these come with costs to individuals, to their families and to the economy. The pandemic plan is focused on balancing the need to minimize deaths and serious illnesses and the need to minimize societal disruption,” said Greer, who studies the mechanisms that lead to disease epidemics and uses models to help identify the best control strategies.

For now, her best advice is similar to the messaging from the Public Health Agency of Canada: Prepare, but don’t panic.

“The thing to do is make a plan. What will you do if schools close? Will you be able to work from home? Do you have elderly family members who might need help? Those are things to think about now,” she said.

“Employers, too, should be working on plans, including small business owners. What will their business look like if employees need to stay home when ill or have to stay home with kids? Absenteeism is likely to be high. So it would be useful for businesses to think proactively about those scenarios.”

Individuals should also make plans, Greer said. If you need prescription medications and are running low, now is a good time to restock and make sure you have enough of the items you might need if you are not feeling well.

“The average person doesn’t need to be stockpiling medical supplies like masks because their effectiveness is low. We are already seeing problems with shortages of masks, which could lead to challenges for the people who actually need them the most.”

Greer said Canadians should know that this country has had a strong pandemic plan in place for decades, one that was thoroughly updated after the 2003 SARS crisis and again after the 2009 influenza pandemic.

“There are whole teams of people who have the full-time job of keeping the plan up to date with the best available evidence and research. The plan is always ready to go and can be used to help guide decisions for many different scenarios.”