Heather Hunter May’21

War of Words

By Heather Anne Hunter

Bravo for Dr. Eileen De Villa, Toronto’s Public Health Officer, for standing up to the provincial government and closing the schools on April 7. Section 22 of The Health Protection Act was invoked and the shutdown was immediate in an effort to protect students and staff from COVID-19 and the more lethal and transmissible variants. Parents are onboard despite the inconvenience to them. So why did Premier Doug Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce continue to repeat that schools are safe and should stay open regardless?
One definition of insanity is: repeating the same behaviour expecting different results. Despite the partial lockdowns and the age-based vaccination program, the numbers and mortality rates have gone up exponentially in Ontario.

Dr. De Villa calmly and simply stated, “The more we reduce our distance, the more we reduce transmission,” which is impossible in crowded, poorly ventilated classrooms. Infectious Disease Specialist, Dr. Isaac Bogoch, insisted, “Vaccines should be triaged and given to essential workers which include and prioritize teachers. We need to vaccinate those most likely to get the disease. Young workers are getting more severely impacted requiring hospital care. We haven’t protected essential workers in indoor spaces. We need sound policy to get out of this wave.”

The disease is hitting people in the prime of their lives. As ICU’s filled up, there was an outcry from doctors in every province to focus the vaccine rollout and inoculate younger essential workers of all ages who are most exposed to the virus and passing it on to their families. In mid-April as numbers surpassed worst case scenarios, Ford commented, “Ontario is doing pretty well right now. We are making tremendous progress every single day.” There is an obvious disconnect between the medical authorities and the government of Ontario.
Infectious disease specialist, Dr. Abu Sharkowy couldn’t be clearer: “Our teachers deserve more dignity, respect and protection. Teachers are going to die!” Dr. Colin Furness (U. of T. Institute of Health Policy and Management) stated, “Their (teacher’s) jobs are extremely dangerous right now.” British Columbia has set the goal of immunizing all educational staff by the end of April. We must do likewise before considering reopening schools.

Doctors fear the 4th and 5th waves will stem from the school settings in September. Toronto emergency physician, Dr. Kashif Pirzada, wants schools to stay closed while the pandemic is out of control. Children aren’t likely to die from the disease, but 10-15% experience debilitating long term effects such as digestive problems and memory deficits.
Magnanimously, the Premier and Education Minister announced that teachers of Special Education could be vaccinated, amounting to about 2 out of every 40 teachers. Being added to the line-up doesn’t guarantee a shot any time soon though. The majority of education workers remain unvaccinated.

Finally, under great pressure, Ford and Lecce grudgingly relented and announced that teachers would pivot once again from in-person to virtual teaching, with the Premier still boasting, “Mr. Lecce has done an incredible job of keeping schools safe. We are working hard to keep schools open.” They are playing politics, patting themselves on the back at every turn. Ford praised his record saying “I have never shied away from difficult decisions.” The latest “Emergency Measures” have added a few more restrictions and increased police powers to enforce them. Dr. Kali Barrett, Critical Care Physician (University Health Network), expressed her frustration calling the changes, “another missed opportunity” and “not science-based”. Doctors did not ask for all outdoor activities to be curtailed, but they are advocating for paid sick days and vaccinations for everyone who cannot work from home. At the present rate, the new projections predict catastrophe: as many as 30,000 new daily cases in Ontario by the end of May.

Brampton Palliative Care Specialist, Dr. Amit Arya, believes the repeated shutdowns were misdirected. Proof of the inadequacy of the government’s half-measures was evident on Easter weekend in the busy malls and big box stores. Dr. Bogoch admonished, “Just because the government lets us do something, doesn’t mean we should.”
Dr. Michael Warner (Michael Garron Hospital) was close to tears on national television describing how 17 doctors working frantically were unable to save a 47 year old woman. With no paid sick days, her husband was forced to go to work in a factory with known infections and brought the virus home.

Dr. Lenore Saxinger of Alberta makes it clear: “We need to get vaccines out to those who need it most.” People of all ages are at risk each day when they work in public or congregate settings. They need to be protected if we expect the schools to be open, the grocery shelves to be stocked and Amazon purchases to arrive.

We need clear, consistent messaging. What is the definition of “essential”? Movie studios and manufacturers of luxury products continue to operate. Eligibility for vaccines varies from area to area in hard-hit Toronto. When people became frustrated by the confounding registration system, Doug Ford responded flippantly, “It’s simple.” Appointments were cancelled without warning when vaccines ran out. People swarmed surprise pop-up clinics in hotspots where vaccines were available to anyone as young as 18, while older essential workers wait their turns in other districts. The Premier blamed the federal government for the supply issues and the Feds blamed the province for the slow rollout.

Dr. Joe Vipond, Emergency Care Physician in Alberta, fears, “We have a disaster on our doorstep. We know what to do, we just need to do it. It was all predictable (in February scientific modelling) and preventable if leaders had followed the advice they’d been given.”
An age-based rather than risk-based approach to vaccination failed to flatten the curve. Like a tsunami, the third wave is overwhelming our health care system. The blame game only undermines public trust. Authorities ask for our cooperation and we ask no less of them as we hope for sensible, science-based policies to rescue us.

~  Heather Hunter is a retired school teacher living in Cliffside. The opinions expressed are her own.