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Chat with a U of S Epidemiologist

March 27, 2020

Those who have been following our COVID-19 Crusade to have better data available for Saskatchewan residents know we’ve been looking for ways to predict spread instead of report after the fact. We called that a search for a leading indicator instead of a lagging indicator. At the risk of repetition, the idea is akin to tracking calories and exercise to see if we will be gaining weight instead of stepping on the scale after the fact to see if we gained weight. If we know we’ve consumed more calories and can correct immediately with some jumping jacks, we can prevent the weight from being gained in the first place. And anyone that’s ever started an exercise regimen will know that weight takes some time to start dropping. Similarly, this coronavirus takes some time to display symptoms and social distancing takes some time to start to show results.

Yesterday afternoon, I received a call from Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, a professor of Epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. I was initially worried that I had gotten something horribly wrong but he actually called to thank me for my work and offer his assistance! We had a great discussion about where we’re at in Saskatchewan.

Leading Indicator

The best part of our conversation was that, from a graphing standpoint, Dr. Muhajarine had some insights into leading indicators that will be familiar to anyone with clinical testing background. I’d already pondered looking at the number of tests and percentage of positive tests as a potential indicator that there is a growing population of untested positives in the community. But I’d left it alone because I’d convinced myself there were too many unknowns. Doctor Muhajarine informed me:

“In clinical trials, they look at how many patients it takes for a successful treatment outcome. This is similar to evaluating the number of tests it takes to yield a case. There are two possible causes that increases the yield; one is that there are more cases available from the population. The second is that we are doing a better job in case finding – that is, targeting potential positives. We already know that the criteria for getting tested has not changed, that is, we are targeting our tests. But we need to do more testing to find the cases that are not in the targeted groups. There are many more cases out there without showing symptoms.”

You had me at “clinical trials,” Doctor. So starting today (and thanks to a timely release of tests per day from the SHA) we will have a new graph starring at the top of our blog: percentage of positive tests. I had already been casually tracking it and can tell you that it has more than doubled in the last week or so. A good indicator that we’re still spreading the virus and that more tests will continue coming back positive.

A Small Diatribe (Rant)

I have also made the case that we simply need to be doing more testing. Some have argued that with so many negative test results, we’re probably doing too much testing. Our own Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab has argued against broader testing, but finally relented to expand testing beyond those that have recently traveled. As is becoming the norm in this crisis, our provincial government takes a “wait and see, we’re doing enough” stance, argues against doing more, and then, too late, relents.

Dr. Shahab makes comments like “I wouldn’t go into an elevator with 5 people” but then the province gets into a pissing match with Regina for trying to set that as a group limit in that city. I sympathize with the argument for clarity, but it would be wiser to have the province set a minimum threshold and allow municipalities to set the rules to match or be more strict (but not less). Is it not possible that there may be cause for different rules in Yorkton than North Battleford or Regina? Maybe the residents in one city are very compliant and in another disobedient? If the province was proving its competence, I guess I’d have less to complain about.

But I digress. I am furious that we weren’t on top of ordering PPE and ventilators back in January. I am just an average idiot citizen. But I still went to Costco mid February to make sure we would have essentials if the virus came to our door. Yes, including one of those Costco packs of TP. Yet our health experts waited until the virus was here to order “a few more” ventilators and didn’t order some extra damned masks? What’s the worst that could happen? They’d order too many and … what? Were they going to go bad sitting on the shelf?!? OK, I’m going to change the title to this section!

I will say, I can empathize with the province trying to balance the economic reality with the health outcomes. But I have no excuse for the SHA leadership, if it is indeed their decision. With politics involved, who really knows?

Sigh. Back on topic…

Testing and A Different Kind of Cluster

Dr. Muhajarine (the epidemiologist) agrees that we need to be doing more testing and smarter testing. “If social distancing isn’t complemented by testing, we won’t get ahead of this.” I sense a bit of frustration from him as well. “Dr. Shahab talks about only testing people at high risk of having the virus,” he says, referring to returning travelers with symptoms, “but asymptomatic cases are the highest risk of community transmission.”

So do we test everyone? There are limited tests, and from some reports, even more limited people to conduct those tests. “In Italy, when two or more cases are in a cluster,” such as on a flight, in the same building, event, etc, “they do contact tracing and target that cluster. Test and isolate. Social distancing is a blunt instrument.” Authorities may be on the right track with news that all 110 attendees of a Christopher Lake snowmobile rally dinner are required isolate.

He has other ideas for cluster targeting. Geography, for example. Yesterday I showed an example of the detail in Alberta’s data. They have an interactive map where you can see what areas of Calgary are hit hardest. That sort of data could help inform decisions on where to direct testing resources. Sharpen the testing to more at risk people including health-care workers, elderly, or by age. “At risk” should include people likely to spread as well as likely to have negative health outcomes. Publicize if someone that tested positive was at Costco on Wednesday afternoon, isolate, and test them. Let the asymptomatic carriers be caught within a cluster instead of waiting for symptoms. Symptoms can take a week to appear if they appear at all, and each of those people can potentially spread the virus.

We can’t do this as individuals or as a province if this data isn’t being found. The province will need to make an attempt at cooperating with other levels of government for a change.

At the end of our conversation, Dr. Muhajarine and I agree on two final thoughts. We can do better. We have to.

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Renting & COVID FAQ, Alberta Data

Heat Map of Alberta COVID Cases, March 26, 2020

March 26, 2020

Heat Map of Alberta COVID Cases, March 26, 2020

I’m pleased to see that the updates from the Saskatchewan government have started including graphs similar to our first one, with the added feature of including new cases per day. Since their data on new cases for the date of the test will be different from when it is publicly announced, we won’t update our work to reflect slight changes but remain a record of when they are reported.

One other difference is that we are still showing the breakdown by region. I hope the government will continue refining data down to more specific regions and even taking a page from Alberta and publishing a heatmap of the province down almost to neighbourhood level for Calgary. More on this soon after I had a great discussion with a local epidemiologist from the U of S. There is new data being shared on testing as well, and I believe I have what I need for a new graph that will serve as a leading indicator. This is, again, thanks to the government now sharing test data.

I’ve also added an FAQ for Renting and Coronavirus today. Take care out there!

 

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COVID-19 Coronavirus Cases in Saskatchewan Over Time

NOTE: We have moved this post to a dedicated COVID-19 Landing Page. Please see that page for the latest up-to-date information!

With the talk of flattening the curve, we wanted to keep track of how we’re doing in Saskatchewan. We’ll be updating this graph every few days.

Today (Mar 23) there are 14 new cases in the province and wide reports of younger people continuing on as though there is nothing going on; 2 of these new cases are in the age group of 5-19. It doesn’t matter what your age is, we all have to do our part. Shops are closed, people have lost their jobs and many have lost or sacrificed a lot in the name of trying to prevent needless deaths as this virus spreads. This is NOT what “nothing to worry about” looks like. Labatt’s doesn’t stop producing alcohol to make sanitizer for fun. These are measures of war, and we are at war against this virus.

You may feel invincible thanks to good health or age, but house parties and get-togethers have got to stop now. We are a small province with extremely limited resources. Even one sick 25 year old requiring hospitalization can result in a 60-year old that can’t be put on a ventilator and may just die. Is a house party worth that cost? Is the total economic carnage worth that cost? If we are at war against this virus, those disobeying public health advice might as well be planting bombs for the enemy. Ignorance is not a defence.

I do not wish to live in a lock down but if people continue acting without care or regard for the well being of our province then it will be inevitable. Be responsible now. If you are NOT in quarantine or social isolation you still MUST practice social distancing. Go outside, but walk on your own or only with 1-2 people from your own households. Stay away from others, and if you see someone you know, stay at least 2 m apart. Wash your hands lots. We’re in this together.

If you haven’t yet, you may want to check out our guidelines on reducing the risk of spreading or catching coronavirus for renters and landlords/property managers. The key take away for both groups: minimize your exposure by pre-screening as much as possible. Use virtual tours or video tours (we can help), conduct FaceTime interviews and meetings, and really read the listing thoroughly before arranging in-person viewings (if at all).

Take care out there (and better yet, don’t be out there at all)!

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Reducing Corona Virus Spread in the Housing Rental Community

From Wuhan to Saskatchewan, the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic is spreading across the globe. No matter where you live, the fact is that everyone needs somewhere to live. Renting can’t come to a stop, pandemic or no. So I’ve created this post to start the conversation about ways that we can all work together, property managers, landlords and tenants, to reduce the spread and stay healthy and safe. The content below is the opinion of the author and should be considered supplemental and secondary to any and all official guidelines from Health Canada and similar governmental agencies. Where possible, we’ve done our best to seek out guidelines and expertise already in place from official sources.

Disclaimer noted, we’ve developed some guidelines and points for consideration:

  1. Tenants
  2. Landlords and Property Managers

Before you branch off, though, here are some great resources and reading to help you understand the state of COVID-19 in Canada, the world, and the importance of precautions:

NOTE: The ORT (Office of Residential Tenancies or the Rentalsman) will be conducting hearings by telephone only, effective March 16, 2020 in Saskatoon and Regina. 

 

Guide to Reducing Corona Virus Spread for Landlords and Property Managers

The Institute of Real Estate Managers has released a Pandemic Guide which has some valuable information, particularly for multiplex managers.

Keeping Common Areas Clean

If you manage a multi-family dwelling, ensure that common areas are sanitized – particularly high touch points like door handles and bannisters – as much as possible and at least once daily. Encourage your tenants to avoid congregating in common areas at the same time and consider sending a notification of what you are doing and best practices for them to employ. If the common areas are not strictly necessary (party rooms, gyms, etc), consider closing them until the risk level has subsided. Consider a plan for if maintenance or cleaning staff are required to isolate themselves. If buildings include a concierge or anyone regularly in contact with tenants, consider ways that the risk to them is minimized.  

Viewings and Finding Renters

Best Practices for Viewings

The safest practice is to simply put off all tenant searching until the pandemic has broken and things have returned to normal. However, this is probably not practical for most so long as the bills keep coming in. It also could result in stranding a portion of the population that has given notice elsewhere but not yet found a place to rent, which would be disastrous. Be sure to maximize your distance and even conduct as much of the conversation outdoors as weather permits; avoid handshakes and contact. And this goes without saying: if you have a sore throat, fever, shortness of breath, or any other symptoms of coronavirus and have been in contact with anyone that has the corona virus in the past two weeks, stay home and isolate yourself.

So while we accept that in-person viewings are likely to continue, we strongly recommend against conducting viewings of occupied suites while the corona virus is spreading. It only takes one infected stranger in a home to contaminate and potentially infect multiple people – not to mention that those current tenants also need to leave and find somewhere safe to go during that time when we’re all being asked to remain home as much as possible. We recognize that this is not ideal and will likely result in at least one month of vacancy, but it is the right thing to do at this time. Consider it time to make some touch-ups, updates, and repairs.  If you simply will not or cannot halt viewings, consider a virtual tour to limit the number of times your tenants must have potentially infectious persons in their home.

If you must continue with viewings and your tenant search, we recommend that you do not conduct in-person viewings until as much pre-screening as possible has been completed.

Pre-Screening to Minimize Contact

If you are actively searching for a renter, then you are going to come into contact with people. You may meet multiple potential tenants, some of whom may become applicants and one of whom may become your new tenant. You may also be into a currently occupied suite and meet with your outbound tenants multiple times during this search. The best practice, aside from a complete stoppage in viewings, is to make the number of in-person interactions as close as possible to zero. Ideally, you would only meet the to-be-accepted applicant and the rest would be pre-screened before ever stepping foot on the property. How can we accomplish that?

  1. Have a complete listing with all necessary information available (allow tenants to pre-screen);
  2. Have clear, large photos that clearly show the suite, layout, and condition;
  3. Offer a virtual, online viewing: consider a virtual tour or film your own video tour with your cell phone and post on YouTube;
  4. Conduct an initial FaceTime, Skype, or other Video Chat meet-and-greet (you could even arrange this to be at the rental to show it);
  5. Share your application form online (Anikio allows you to save it to your listing) or use an online screening service;
  6. If the application is valid and the tenant is still interested, THEN organize an in-person meeting and viewing to make the application official.

We want to do our part and are offering free consultation on rental ads posted to Anikio during this pandemic. Simply contact us to get help making your listing as complete as possible. We are also happy to help those creating their own video tours or taking their own photos in any way we can, again at no charge. Finally, we also continue to offer professional-grade rental photography and virtual tour creation to maximize your pre-screening efforts.

Rent and Notice Considerations

Reach out to your tenants to let them know what steps is any you are taking to ensure their rental remains safe, and ask them to reach out to you should anything come up that could compromise their ability to fulfill their obligations as tenants. Everyone should have a contact in the city to help them should they need assistance during this time, if it is in your power to be a contact for your tenant then consider doing so. Regardless, keep the line of communications open and consider that a two-week absence from their work may be enough to severely limit their well-being and ability to pay rent. Consider extensions and partial payments but always be sure to have any arrangement in writing.

If a tenant has given notice, reach out to ask if they have found a place or would like to consider extending their tenancy until the corona virus threat has subsided. Be sure, again and always, to have any agreement in writing and consider putting a finite time (one month or two months) on the extension. As mentioned above, we strongly urge against conducting viewings of occupied suites while the corona virus is spreading.

Prime Minister Trudeau has stated that there will be relief measures to reduce the financial burden but hasn’t defined them at this point. Italy, for example, has instructed banks to not collect mortgage payments during their shut down and landlords not to collect rent. This can be more complex an issue when rent includes utilities but certainly can relieve some of the strain on individuals during a difficult time should it come into place. More likely in Canada, those that have tested positive for the virus or have been temporarily laid off will have access to emergency funding through the EI program but that remains to be seen.

Tenant’s Guide to Reducing Corona Virus Spread

Covid-19 Infographic

Stay in Contact with Your Landlord

No matter what, you should have a ‘buddy’ in the city that can assist should you be unable to leave your home (and vice versa). It’s also a good idea to keep in contact with your landlord or property manager. You’re under no obligation to notify your landlord or property manager if you have the corona virus but you definitely should. In addition to self isolation, it’s the responsible thing to do for you and any others in the same building. Maintaining an open line of communication can also help should a complication arise that leaves you, for example, unable to pay rent on time. A landlord informed in advance should be much more forgiving and willing to work with you than one that has to contact you to find out what happened to the rent. Moreover, being as straightforward with your landlord, even if you don’t expect them to be understanding, will be to your benefit should you end up at the rentalsman.

Roommates

Living with roommates, any one of you becoming sick is cause enough for all of you to self isolate. If you are the one to develop symptoms, self-assess (check the province’s COVID-19 Self-Assessment Tool to determine if your symptoms could be coronavirus and to organize a test. The province notes that if you have not been exposed to someone known to have COVID-19 or that has returned from an international travel, you currently do not need to test but expect this to change within the next week or two as more community cases are likely to arrive. If you are in a position where a test is merited, everyone in that house should isolate themselves until a negative test result is received (i.e. you do not have the virus). Your roommates will need to be notified immediately. Should you have the virus, everyone in the house should remain isolated for two weeks even if they do not have symptoms; it is possible for COVID-19 to spread even among asymptomatic people that have been exposed. In the meantime, all common areas must be sanitized regularly and any symptomatic roommates must isolate from healthy but at-risk roommates to avoid spreading. Consider scheduling use of common areas like kitchens to minimize contact. Sanitize shared surfaces and items thoroughly.

Apartment Dwellings

Even if your property manager hasn’t closed off common areas like gyms, stay away. Be cautious of door handles, keypads, bannisters, and any other frequent touch point and do your best to avoid or immediately wash or sanitize your hands if you must touch those surfaces. Do not touch your face until after you have cleaned your hands.

Searching for a Rental

The safest practice is to simply put off all rental searching until the pandemic has broken and things have returned to normal. If you’ve already given your landlord notice, consider contacting them to see about extending your tenancy until the outbreak has passed. As always, get anything relating to your tenancy in writing.

If you must move, do yourself a favour and screen meticulously before going to a viewing. Read the listings carefully, look at all photos, take the virtual tour or video walkthrough if available (ask for one if it’s not), and then contact the landlord or property manager to ask any questions you have if you’re still interested. Ask to see a copy of their application form in advance of meeting and consider having a video chat (FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Skype, WhatsApp, and so on) to have an initial face-to-face chat and ask any questions you still have. The point is to minimize your viewings and in-person contact with others. 

When you meet in person, don’t shake hands and maintain a bit of space to minimize contact. Bring your own pen to sign anything you may need to.

Viewings of Your Current Tenancy

If you’ve given notice and are determined to move, ask your landlord if they’d consider not having showings of your place during the outbreak. They are under no obligation to do so but it is best practice to minimize potential contamination of your home while you’re living there.