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Germ-zapping robots: Your COVID-19 questions answered


We’re breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic by answering your questions. You can send your questions via email at COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we’re also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and News Network.  

So far we’ve received more than 20,000 emails from all corners of the country, including a number of questions about whether the virus can be transmitted through your ears, and how UV light could be harnessed to clean personal protective equipment (PPE) including this question from Laurie D. 

Does ultraviolet light destroy the virus? Can it be used on PPE?

Sunlight emits three types of Ultraviolet (UV) radiation, but only one type, called UVC radiation, has the power to kill viruses. UVC is filtered out by the earth’s atmosphere, but scientists discovered how to artificially generate UVC to destroy microorganisms back in 1878.  UVC is now being used to disinfect a lot of different things including drinking water, laboratory equipment and hospitals, where some health-care facilities hard hit by COVID-19 are deploying high-tech UV light robots to zap germs.

But it’s not clear whether UVC tech can be used to disinfect PPE. A spokesperson for Xenex Disinfection Services, which manufactures germ-zapping robots, told CBC News some hospitals are using their LightStrike robots to disinfect N95 respirator masks so they can be reused.

“We are absolutely humbled to be in a position to help in the United States and across the globe,” said company spokesperson Irene Hahn.

Ron Hofmann, president of the International Ultraviolet Association and an expert in the use of UV light to treat water, said “we’re figuring things out on the fly.” He said new information is arriving “almost daily as we try to determine how to reuse the N95 respirator masks and other critical PPE that was never designed to be reused.”

Other experts agree this is new territory in the fight against COVID-19. Bill Anderson, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Waterloo, said “since PPE differs in materials, sizes, shapes, there will always be a little uncertainty about disinfection.” Another challenge is figuring out how to get UV light into all the little crevices and shadows in the interior of PPE where particles of the virus could be hiding, he said. 

Health Canada is monitoring how single use medical devices such as N95 masks could be safely reused during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Here is a list of approved hard surface disinfectants for use against COVID-19. Remember, frequent hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is your best protection against the virus.

How do the doctors anticipate we return to a new normal?

Weeks have passed since the Canadian government and health officials began encouraging physical distancing and isolation measures. Canadians, including Dave B., are starting to wonder what’s next. How do we return back to our regular lives and what does that look like?

Dr. Michael Curry, an emergency room doctor at Delta Hospital in Vancouver and a professor at the University of British Columbia, predicts we’ll return to “a new normal” gradually, dubbing the process a “phased return.”

However, he explains that two variables will impact how those phases are carried out: antibody testing and a vaccine.

Antibody testing “may let us know who has been exposed to it and presumably may be immune to the COVID infection,” said Dr. Curry. This could be valuable information when deciding who is able to return to work first.

Dr. Curry also mentions the prospect of a vaccine, which right now is estimated to be released in 2021.

“Good antibody testing showing immunity or a vaccine would change those [phased return] plans dramatically.” 

You can watch more of Dr. Michael Curry’s answers on The National here:

Doctors answer your questions about the coronavirus, including if there’s any way of knowing how many asymptomatic people could be walking around when only symptomatic people are being tested.  4:20

Do you believe there will be a vaccine?

On the subject of vaccines, here’s a question from Renee answered on CBC News Network’s Morning Live with Heather Hiscox.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network, said he is confident there will be a vaccine. 

“I really always bet on human ingenuity.”

He says there are currently more than 40 “very qualified research groups and vaccine-specific groups” working on the development of the vaccine using a variety of methods. Some have started human trials. 

So will a vaccine be ready in 12-18 months? Dr. Bogoch couldn’t confirm. “Your guess is as good as mine … but hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.” 

Can the virus go through your ears?

By now, you’ve probably heard it a hundred times: Avoid touching your face because contaminated hands can spread the virus to your mouth, eyes or nose. But Joseph T. sent us an email wondering whether the virus can be transmitted through the ears. Here’s what we know:

A COVID-19 infection occurs when droplets containing the virus make contact with a mucosal membrane — the soft linings on our eyes, nose, mouth and elsewhere — including in the inner lining of our middle ears, which connects to the nose and mouth. 

However, it would be unlikely coronavirus droplets could enter through that lining, said Dr. Raiyan Chowdhury, a critical care and ears, nose, throat specialist. 

He said the ear has various defences that shield it from viruses; the ear canal and the ear drum protect the mucosal membrane. Ear wax also acts as a natural barrier. All these defences would have to fail, or there would have to be a hole in the eardrum, for the coronavirus to enter the ear’s inner lining, he said.

“It is far more likely that a droplet would enter through your eyes, nose or mouth rather than  through a hole in your ear drum.”

And if you are feeling squeamish about using your earbuds, he said it is not risky unless you’re sharing them with other people. 

“The earphones could then act as a vector to someone else using them. If they happened to touch the ear phones and get droplets on their hands, they could then easily have it move to their eyes, nose, or mouth if they touched their face.”

Can using ibuprofen make symptoms of COVID-19 worse and start pneumonia?

This question comes from Terry M. 

Right now, experts say COVID-19 patients can treat fever with ibuprofen and other drugs, despite previous confusion on their effects. The World Health Organization has clarified that advice stating there’s no evidence to suggest using ibuprofen to manage symptoms of COVID-19 will worsen the condition, compared to using Tylenol and other acetaminophen products, for example. You can read more about that here.

We’re also answering your questions every night on The National. Last night, your questions included, how to manage stress and loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch here:

Doctors answer viewer questions about mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, including what could be causing sleep issues. 3:48

Friday we answered questions about how to celebrate Easter and Passover during the pandemic. Read here.

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at COVID@cbc.ca.



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