Been There, Done that: Thoughts on COVID-19 from someone who’s lived thru this


Edit notes: Because of the wild increase in COVID-19 cases and the public’s general disinterest in following social isolation guidelines despite that, this blog has been edited to discourage irresponsible reactions.

I lived in Toronto in the 2002 SARS epidemic. According to data, SARS-Cov-19 and Covid-19 (the virus and the disease, respectively) is most likely a lower mortality rate than the 2002-2003 outbreak (10% vs 3-4%). It’s hard to tell if it’s more contagious because of limited testing, but if it is, as the progression seems to suggest, MORE contagious, that actually brings the mortality rate even lower. 

So how did a major metro area, and the likely entry point for the whole North American spread, react to this disease?

Well, they didn’t panic buy toilet paper.

Travel alerts were issued in March 2003, which included Toronto as a major hot spot, but by May 2003, most of these had been lifted. What I remember most was that the hospitals closed to all but vital staff and emergency patients. I remember this because it affected our out reach clinics, there and at the HIV clinic, and we had to fold 20-25 students back into the student clinic in order for them to get their practical treatment hours. We were suddenly slammed in the student clinic, with 40 or so more people in there every day.

(For those of you who might find this reposted out in the wild, I went to massage trade school. I was touching people all day.)

Many students took public transit, if not to and from school, then around the city. While we became adept at balancing without the need to touch the bars, it sometimes was necessary. During the height of the epidemic, there were announcements at least once a week on the news: “if you were on this train at this time, please be alert to symptoms of SARS and quarantine yourself until you have been cleared by a doctor.” 

My school had performed poorly on the handwashing portion of licensing trials the year before I started, and from day one, we were mercilessly drilled about it. Like most people, I have the “general cleanliness” hand wash as well as the “I did something germy” hand wash. I also have the Very Thorough Sanitation Wash for my work at my clinic. 

(I have recently discovered that counting triggers that version, even if I’m not in my clinic. Which would be ok if it didn’t involve going above my elbows at a time when I’m still usually wearing long sleeves.)

Every student learned to wash their hands for a full 20 seconds as part of my training, on pain of public humiliation. 

While masks were occasionally used by the public, mostly it was reserved for health providers in the hospitals. Hand sanitizer was used and shared by those traveling by public transit, but it wasn’t hoarded. Despite being a major city of over 5 million, there was no run on water or paper goods. [Although I went out to social events, the CDC has recently recommended avoiding events over 50 people. The Governor of North Carolina has made it a misdemeanor fine for groups over 100 (now over 10 under stay-at-home orders). With a long incubation and transmission cycle, this is the only way to prevent further spread. Please follow local government or CDC guidelines. ]

Covid-19 mostly affects people over the age of 60, or those with immunocompromised systems. If you are healthy, and middle aged or younger, you have approximately 1% chance of mortality from this. For comparison, this is about the same as last year’s influenza mortality, overall.

The major concern with COVID-19 is not its mortality rate. It’s how quickly it is spreading. If a large spike of cases occurs, it can quickly overwhelm the local health care systems, which are not used to handling caseloads of this size. This will increase the deaths as people who need care are unable to get it.

It is significantly worse for those high risk categories, of course, but the solution is not to buy out your local shop n save. Panic buy outs reduce access for those who actually need the products. I was speaking this morning to a young woman whose niece was sick, and her sister had been told to feed formula with distilled water. After 5 stores and the need to go to work, this woman couldn’t find any distilled water for the child. Hospitals are literally rationing masks because people have stolen them. From a HOSPITAL. (NB: construction masks are useless against viruses, and should be left for construction workers. If you are NOT sick, or working WITH the sick, using a mask traps warm moist air on your face, and you are likely constantly touching it to adjust it. Because of this, you are MORE LIKELY to get sick with a mask. )

Ask yourself seriously: do you NEED this, or are you literally taking it away from a sick child? A sick friend? Your friend’s elderly grandmother?

It’s tempting, I know, to buy up when you see others do the same. But this is not a hurricane. Water and power are unlikely to go out. In fact, Mayor Lyles announced that water wouldn’t be cut off even if you couldn’t pay your bill. The places that should be wiped out are entertainment providers: libraries, redbox, and the movie section at your local electronics section. 

Trust me when I say: I’ve been there. I’ve done this. 

The very best thing you can do is sing Happy birthday while you wash your hands, avoid in-person contact with people outside of your family whenever you can (STAY AT HOME), and stop panicking. 

See our updated health policies for Essential Therapy here.

Charts provided by, as of 3/13/2020