HEPA Filters, Focus on Ventilation Can Help Open Economy

This week, much of Ontario moves out of a complete lockdown (I finally get a hair cut!). The move itself has not been without controversy, with some critics saying the government is opening too fast, and others saying they’re opening too slowly.

There is no doubt in my mind that if we can re-open the economy safely, we should. COVID19 has done terrible damage over the past year. Lives lost. Families unable to say goodbye to their loved ones. On going health issues in those who survived COVID19 infections and much, much more. But there is also an increase in the number of people suffering from mental illness, a rise in domestic abuse, and very real economic hardships faced by millions of Canadians.

It has been noted that there were were more deaths than expected in Canada last year, and not all of these “excess deaths” were directly caused by COVID19. We are starting to realize that some of deaths are “indirect”. That’s to say, the social isolation, the lack of emotional, financial and other support, the delayed medical procedures and more, have caused these deaths.

This situation is particularly bad in British Columbia and Alberta, where there were 270 and 360 more deaths than expected between March 15 and April 25 alone, and these were not directly attributed to COVID19.

To be clear, the lockdowns were necessary. And if we open the economy in an un-safe manner, COVID cases will rise again, there will be more death and perhaps even a dreaded third wave. We’ve seen from Sweden what happens when a country doesn’t shut down in the face of COVID. Even their king has admitted Sweden’s approach was a total failure.

It’s just that we cannot ignore the pain and suffering that occurs by a lockdown as well.

That’s why to my mind the focus needs to be on how to re-open safely. We have one of the worst pandemic responses in the world, so we must do better. Is there something we can do, that hasn’t been done in Canada yet?

Turns out, there just might be.

For far too long, Health Canada did not focus on airborne spread of COVID19. They stressed the “droplet” method of transmission, where fluid particles are expelled from your mouth, land on a surface and are then when you touch them, wind up on your fingers, and then into your body when you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Full disclosure, if you search hard enough, you can find a video of me somewhere on the net saying exactly that, and telling people not to wear masks. It is clearly outdated now, and should be ignored.

Japan, by contrast, focused on airborne spread as far back as February of 2020. Their whole focus was to ensure proper ventilation and using air purifiers with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters in rooms. Everybody was asked to wear a mask early last year. Granted it is culturally more accepted to wear masks in Japan. But the focus was on airborne spread right from the start.

A diagram showing Japan’s process for dealing with COVID19, part of their submission to “Environment International” – September 2020 edition

How well did Japan do? Japan has a population of 125 million people in a country about 3/4 the size of Baffin Island. As I write this, data from their COVID tracking system shows that 417,116 people have been infected (0.33% of the population) and 7,038 have died (.0056% of the population).

These numbers are all the more remarkable considering that Japan did just about everything else wrong. They did not test enough (at least at the beginning), the lockdown measures were half hearted and voluntary, many pachinko parlours (a mix of gambling and alcohol) stayed open, and traffic on their notoriously crowded commuter trains to work was only down 18%.

Health Canada did not even acknowledge airborne spread of COVID19 until November 2020 (9 months after Japan and 4 months after the World Health Organization). Our Covid19 tracker shows terrible results. We have a population of 38 million. Yet as I write this, we have had 826,528 cases (2.17 % of the population or 6.6 x as many as Japan on a pro-rated basis) and 21,309 deaths (.056% of the population or almost exactly 10 x as many deaths as Japan on a pro-rated basis).

It does make one wonder, if we had approached COVID19 as having airborne spread right from the start, could we have saved a number of lives, and limited the lockdowns we endured? And now that the evidence is strong that COVID19 is airborne, should we not have businesses focus on safe ventilation as a condition for opening?

What’s required for optimal ventilation? Well ideally, you should have an HVAC system that exchanges the air in a given room 6 times an hour with an HEPA filter. HEPA filters can remove the vast majority of droplets that the COVID19 virus (and other viruses!) live in. But the reality is that this would be ultra costly and take far too long to replace every HVAC in most commercial buildings. (Should definitely be a requirement for new commercial properties and especially the new nursing homes Ontario is building).


What can other businesses do instead? One of my patients is a manager at a Tim Hortons. They have 14 tables at the Tim’s. What if the restaurant put a portable air purifier with a HEPA filter on each table? There are many brands that cost $80-$100 each for a small size one. But with one on each table (where people would be talking and eating without masks, thus expelling the virus), you could reduce viral spread.

Granted at that price, the air purifiers would only last about six months, but by that time hopefully we will all be vaccinated anyway.

Similarly, we could mandate appropriate air purifiers in other businesses as requirement for opening. To be clear, people should still wear masks, wash hands regularly and physically distance as much as possible. Those are important and necessary precautions for re-opening. But the HEPA filter purifiers would simply provide that extra level of protection. It’s why I asked my nursing home to install them in their facility (and thank you to the owners of Bay Haven for doing that).

Canadians have suffered terribly over the past year. For the sake of our physical and mental health we need to re-open the economy, but do it in away that will not increase COVID19 infections, and not have us yo-yo between lockdowns and re-opening. Focusing on ventilation and HEPA filters can help us do this safely.

COVID19 Has Exposed Flaws In Our Public Health System

“Be hard on the problem, not on the people.” – unnamed OMA Executive

When I was President of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), I had the privilege of touring the province. The tour was during flu shot season, so I took the opportunity to meet many Public Health physicians and staff. They are all good, hard working people who are dedicated to their communities and doing their best to advocate for the health care needs of the population.

Unfortunately, the Public Health system in Ontario (and Canada) is fragmented and disjointed. This really impeded the ability of Public Health to act in a unified manor prior to the pandemic. But because Public Health wasn’t as “visible” at the time, the flaws in the system remained hidden.

To understand just how this fragmentation affected our health, one only looks at the situation around trans fats. I wrote about this previously, but in short:

– We’ve known since 1993 that trans fats are linked to increased heart disease

– We’ve known since 1995 that Canadians are one of the highest consumers of trans fats in the world

– Denmark, led by their strong public health system, essentially banned trans fats in 2004 and within 2 years had 4% less deaths from heart disease. There was also a reduction in childhood and adolescent obesity.

– The results were so good that many other European countries followed suit.

If we apply the Denmark results to Canada, we could prevent 600 heart attacks a year. Banning trans fats would seem to be a no-brainer, and clearly the type of thing Public Health should effectively advocate for.

But here in Ontario, outside of the City of Toronto trying to ban trans fats in restaurants in 2007 not much has been done about this. Part of this is because Ontario has 35 different Public Health units, who all function independently. They may not even have the same software when collecting data, and some still use paper charts. Because they all function independently, just because Toronto Public Health wants a ban, doesn’t mean all the other units would even know about it, much less share information on it, or advocate for it. And of course, every Province and Territory has their own autonomous Public Health System.

So essentially, the Public Health Units were unable to co-ordinate around this issue, and outside of trying to ban Trans Fats in school cafeterias, and a failed voluntary guideline by Health Canada, not much has happened.

It wasn’t even until 2017 that Health Canada got around to proposing a ban on trans fats, and 4 years later this still hasn’t happened. It’s worthwhile noting that over 10,000 heart attacks could have been prevented if we had acted at the same time as Denmark.

If in “normal”, non-pandemic times, the Public Health system was so fragmented, and disjointed, that something this straightforward couldn’t be accomplished, how would they perform in a once in century pandemic?

The answer, sadly, is not very well.

Just as the various Public Health Units couldn’t co-ordinate on the same message for Trans Fats, it appears the various units can’t co-ordinate on the same messaging around COVID. Case in point, on Nov 4, 2020, Health Canada finally (!) announced that yes, indeed, the coronavirus has airborne spread, and all facilities should take airborne precautions.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Office of Canada announcing COVID19 was, indeed spread by aerosols

Yet a look at the website for my Public Health unit (Simcoe Muskoka) on Jan 10, 2021 (2.5 months later!) still shows the same guidelines that’s before the announcement. Namely, that the virus is spread through droplets and so cleaning surfaces is more important.

From Simcoe Muskoka Public Health, Jan 10, 2021.

So here we have two different messages coming from public health authorities.

By comparison, take a look at Japan. Japan decided back in February 2020 that the virus was aerosolized. They too have many regional public health offices, however, the regional branches send the information to the national office, and the national office makes decisions. Those decisions are clearly communicated to the public, so the same message goes through the country.

They very quickly focused on things such as air purifiers with HEPA filters in rooms, improving ventilation by leaving windows open (even in the crowded community trains) mask wearing, and improved HVAC systems.

A diagram showing Japan’s process for dealing with COVID19, part of their submission to “Environment International” – September 2020 edition.

As a result, on a per capita basis, Japan has only 1/8th the number of infections, and 1/14th the number of deaths from COVID19 as we’ve had in Canada so far.

But it’s not just messaging that’s the problem. Public Health Units are hampered by their archaic systems from adequately preforming the test/trace/isolate process so important to controlling the spread of COVID19.

My practice is close to the border of the Simcoe Muskoka District Health and the Grey Bruce Health Unit. If one of my patients comes down with a reportable illness, I have to figure out which health unit to report to. But they use separate forms. Additionally because they use separate data systems, they can’t share information between the two.

Supposing one of my patients were test to positive for COVID-19. What if they live in Grey Bruce, but work in Simcoe Muskoka. Who should I report this to? And more importantly who is responsible for the contact tracing considering they work in one area and live in another? Especially since they can’t share data.

The result? Effective test/trace/isolate does not occur in Canada.

Compare this to South Korea. South Korea has multiple regional offices for public health, but they’re integrated by the Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare (KMHW). They share software, and so can share data and information.

By having all of Public Health integrated, South Korea was able to have one source for information. So not only did they have a consistent message (the KMHW gave two press conferences a day), but they were able to effectively test/trace/isolate.

On a per capita basis, South Korea has only had 1/13th the number of COVID cases as Canada, and 1/20th the number of deaths.

Canada’s response to the COVID pandemic is among the worst in the world. Only the fact that we are next door to a country that has had arguably the worst response in the world seems to prevent Canadians from recognizing this fact. If there is one learning that me must take forward from this, it is that lack of an integrated, seamless and co-ordinated Public Health system has cost us many lives.

As a country, we need to support the people working in Public Health by improving the systems they have, so they can protect us in the future.

Note: This blog is based on the first part of a presentation I gave to the Public Health Youth Association of Canada (my thanks to them for asking me to speak). If you are suffering from insomnia, or if you are generally good person and want to support young people who are keen to improve the world, feel free to watch the presentation here:

Facts and Myths About the COVID Vaccine

Disclaimer: As always, the information I present here is meant to be an overall summary of what we know, and not specific medical advice for one person. If you have questions, please talk to your doctor.

As I write this blog, almost 52 million doses of the new COVID vaccines have been delivered to people around the world. Our knowledge about COVID (and the vaccines) continues to increase almost exponentially, and while we don’t know everything yet, here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Time to put the whole “Guinea Pig” argument to rest.

Many people have told me they don’t want to be a human “guinea pig” to test the vaccine on. The clinical trials on the vaccines (while quick) were thorough. More people have gotten their first dose of the vaccine than the entire population of Canada. If you get it now, you won’t be first. In fact you’ll be after this guy:

What if I have an allergic reaction?

After Britain warned against giving the Pfizer vaccine to people with a history of severe allergies, some people were concerned. However, now that we have given so many of these vaccines, we know that the rate of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) with the Pfizer vaccine is one in 90,090. Your odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime are 1 in 15,030. Remember, all the vaccine sites have Epipen.

The Moderna Vaccine is Better/Has Less Side Effects

Some people are waiting for the Moderna vaccine. However, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are equally effective. I had suggested that if your allergies were so bad that you needed an epipen, you might want to wait for the Moderna vaccine. But Canada’s federal government has done a poor job of ordering the vaccines. With Canada having deferred purchase of more of the Moderna vaccine (!), you probably should just get the first one you are offered.

I’m Worried About a Sore Arm and Other Symptoms After

Sore arm, fever, and muscle aches are all symptoms people can get after any vaccine. However, what’s important to note is that these are not side effects. A vaccine works by stimulating your immune system. If you get a cold, your immune system activates to fight the virus, and as part of that, will often give you a fever, and muscle aches. You may feel crummy, but your immune system is doing its job.

If this happens to you after a vaccine, it may be miserable to experience but at least you can take it as a sign your immune system is working, and you are getting a response to the vaccine.

It’s off label but I ensured that all of the resident of Bay Haven Nursing home got 1,000 mg of Acetaminophen three times a day the day before, the day of and the day after the vaccine. We have had no reports of flu like illnesses after the vaccine. I intend to take this myself before my second shot, and you may want to consider this as well.

I Am Pregnant or Trying to Get Pregnant

There were women of child bearing age in both the Moderna and Pfizer studies (although no pregnant women). The vaccine did not appear to cause issues. We routinely give other vaccines (like the flu shot) to pregnant women and it is felt to be safe.

When I study the science around it, there is no reason that the COVID vaccine should affect pregnancy. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada has stated that: “Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should be offered vaccination at anytime if they are eligible and no contraindications exist”. Please talk to your doctor about this.

But I Still Have to Wear a Mask/Get Swabbed/Get Screened!

Alas, yes you do. I share the frustration on this one. Health Canada only approves what it knows. The evidence from the studies on the vaccines was very strong that they would reduce your chance of getting COVID. However, to study whether the vaccine will reduce the risk of transmission is much more complicated. It requires a high level contact tracing which we don’t have in Canada.

However, every other successful vaccine in the past has reduced the ability to transmit whatever disease we were protecting against. That’s why we no longer have small pox, and until the rise of the renowned neurobiologist/brain surgeon Jenny McCarthy, had almost eliminated measles. I’m hoping that Health Canada will lift the requirement to wear masks for people vaccinated in the near future.

This should at least show you how much confidence they have in the Covid vaccines. I mean if an organization that historically takes it’s time to approve things moved so quickly when they saw the evidence for the Covid vaccines.

Are You Sure These Vaccines Were Tested Properly? They Were Approved Awfully Fast.

There was good reason to be approved quickly. As I mentioned in a previous blog, there was a significant reduction in bureaucracy. Everybody (drug companies/regulatory bodies/politicians) agreed we needed a vaccine as soon as possible, so the five years (!) of red tape was cut.

The second thing to keep in mind is that to test a vaccine, you have to expose people who had the vaccine to the illness. For a condition like shingles, you often times have to wait for years to see if the virus is effective, because as painful and awful as it is, Shingles is still relatively rare. It takes a LOT of time to accumulate the data needed to see if enough people benefited.

For COVID, one perverse benefit of the fact that the United States has one of, if not the worst responses to the pandemic in the world is that the virus is, well everywhere. That means the over 70,000 people in the studies could be exposed to the virus very quickly, and we could see very quickly if the vaccine worked.

Moreover, it’s a myth that all the drug companies who developed a vaccine were approved. There are 14 vaccines for COVID that were being developed. But if flawed, the trials were halted (like CSL in Australia or Sanofi-Glen‘s vaccine).

The Vaccine Is Genetic and Will Affect My DNA

Simply not true. The mRNA used in the vaccine will not affect your DNA. DNA is the stuff that makes you, well you. I can’t explain it any better than Dr. Abdurrahman:

I Don’t Trust Big Pharma/Bill Gates is Injecting Nanochips Into My Body/It’s an Illuminati Conspiracy

………. I got nothing. If you really believe this there’s nothing I can do to convince you otherwise.

Should I Get The Vaccine (Whichever one) When It’s My Turn?

YES! The lockdowns and economic harm caused by this pandemic are having a terrible toll on us. The social isolation, job loss, economic harm, mental illness and much, much more is devastating society.

If we want to visit our friends, if we want to go to a restaurant, if we want to go to Church/Mosque/Synagogue/Temple, if we want to travel, if we want to……..simply live a normal life again, we need to get everyone possible immunized. Without this, the pain we all suffer from this pandemic will continue.

Community doctors key to successful vaccination rollout

The following blog was co-written by Dr. Samantha Hill (current OMA President) and Dr. Adam Kassam (OMA President-Elect). It first appeared in the online version of the Toronto Star on January 11, 2021 and is reproduced here with the permission of the authours.

Images of elated physicians and other health care workers being immunized has been an emotional experience for our community. Our professional stoicism has given way to more fundamental and broadly shared human feelings: joy and optimism. 

For close to a year now, we have had to work at the very tip of the spear against the pandemic. This dangerous, exhausting and unpredictable work has taken its toll. That is why the vaccine represents a literal infusion of hope for us, our patients, families and communities.

We are thoroughly delighted for every colleague, long-term care resident and vulnerable person who is now a little bit safer. However, collectively, we are still a long way from defeating this disease. As we encounter record highs of cases, hospitalizations and — sadly — deaths, only a fraction of Ontario’s physicians have received a first dose of the vaccine. 

For understandable logistical reasons — which include the need for special cold storage — most of the first vaccines were administered in tertiary hospital centres, which have admirably risen to the immense challenge of organizing the safe and efficient deployment of the vaccines. 

Getting everyone vaccinated successfully relies on two key factors: the federal government’s continuous and predictable procurement and delivery of the vaccines to Ontario, and the provincial government’s ability to distribute and administer the vaccine to Ontarians.

To that end, as approvals for other vaccines occur nationally and vaccine supplies ramp up across the country, we will need to move beyond hospitals to build capacity to be provincially successful in rapidly immunizing our population. These centres are already stretched thin, simultaneously treating a growing number of sick COVID-19 patients and the usual hospital health care needs of Ontario.

Which is precisely why, the next leg in this crucial vaccine race requires a co-ordinated community effort to vaccinate front-line health-care workers and the vulnerable patients both within and outside of congregate care settings.

Approximately 60 per cent of physician services occur outside of the hospitals. Many of these community doctors — both primary care and specialists — have direct knowledge of their vulnerable patients. They have developed relationships, credibility and bonds of trust through their continuity of care, all of which are crucial for success of any province-wide vaccination program. Grassroots, community doctors will also be essential to co-ordinating the necessary two-dose schedule.

Community doctors must have clarity on access to vaccines, not only for their own well being, but also for planning purposes for their patients. They have been caring for their communities for years, and these doctors are an invaluable resource with experience, expertise and capacity that must be leveraged. Even now, in this next stage, Ontarians deserve a trusted medical professional — many of whom come from, live and work in diverse communities — upon whom to rely.

This pandemic has challenged every facet of our society. In Ontario, thousands of people have contracted and died from this terrible disease. Our already-precarious health care system has been buckling under this added pressure. Disruption to businesses, communities and families has been widespread.

We all desperately want this devastation to stop. Our path out of this is with these vaccines. Doctors are, unfailingly, at our posts and prepared to help. While this pandemic has been a marathon, we need to now think of the vaccine rollout as a sprint. Because in this race, lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Message from OMA President: STAY HOME

Dr. Samantha Hill

The following blog was written by Dr. Samantha Hill, a Cardiovascular Surgeon, owner of a Masters in Biostatistics and Epidemiology AND another Masters in Health Practioner Teacher Education. In her spare time she is the current President of the Ontario Medical Association, which represents 44,000 physicians, medical students and residents.

It’s time for some serious advice from your doctors to ensure that everyone has the safest and happiest holiday season.  

The recently announced lockdown is effective Boxing Day, but Ontarians do not have to wait.  All of us can, and should, take action now, including cancelling plans to visit family and friends on Christmas.

COVID-19 is serious.  The numbers of Ontarians confirmed positive for COVID, hospitalized, admitted to the ICU, and ventilated continue to rise dramatically.  Hospitals are again reducing non-emergent care and preparing for surge capacity.  LTCs are overwhelmed and calling out for help, as their patients, our elderly, suffer.

Clearly, we need to do better.

This spring, we demonstrated severe lockdowns save lives from COVID.  But, we failed our most vulnerable, saw high health costs (late presentations of other illnesses, marked increase in mental health challenges, and a staggering pandemic deficit of health) and severe economic consequences.

In September, we moved indoors again. Despite most people following public health guidelines, labs and contact tracers are again overwhelmed.  Lockdowns are present and imminent.

Let me be clear, that means we are failing. 

Lockdowns are a last resort, imposed when we fail to live safely within tenuous new normals and escalating precautions are not enough to protect us. There is no space for blame.  We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play.

I find myself needing to remind you, that during lockdowns, essential workers still go to work: your doctors, all front-line health-care providers, teachers, but also “invisible” essential workers who stock grocery store aisles, work the cash register, service the TTC, support LTCs and hospitals, etc. Many ride the TTC to do so.

Doctors know that being deemed essential does not equate with being safe from COVID-19.  A grocery store is no safer than a clothing store.  Lunch in the work breakroom is no safer than lunch with others anywhere else.   An hour on public transit is no safer than a one-hour flight. Over the past nine months, we have seen outbreaks, illness and deaths stemming from essential services.  These services stay open because we need them.

Essential workers are exposed to increased risks for the well-being of others.  We decided we can’t live without them. So we have an obligation to protect them, not just bang pots.  Their lives, literally, depend on our choices.

So how do we keep people safe? You already know: Mask up, wash your hands, maintain social distancing.  Always choose the safer activity, skip the social event or stay home.  When we get it right, we decrease the spread of COVID in our communities, avoid lockdowns, protect our most vulnerable, our essential workers and everyone else, without sacrificing everything else.

A COVID vaccine is on the way for all of us – we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.  But we are still squarely in the tunnel, and will be until the majority of Ontarians have been vaccinated (and the timeline for this is the end of 2021).  Worse though, one-third  of Ontarians are planning to ignore the public health recommendations to not socialize over the holidays.   Worst-case modelling projections predict nearly 10,000 cases daily by January.  Our choices today determine that.

So, this doctor’s advice? 

  1. Assess the risk and benefit of each action, job, trip or interaction, particularly during the holidays.  Is it worth the risk not just to you, but to all of Ontario? For those scanning: ALMOST EVERYONE SHOULD STAY HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS.
  2. When worth the risk,
    • wear your mask and distance yourself from those who will not 
    • wash or sanitize your hands frequently
    • stay two metres apart
    • minimize the time you spend in close quarters with others, the number of people involved, how often you interact with others.
  1. Don’t grow complacent.  Small actions matter:  start a line when a store is full; redirect friends to gather outdoors or skip eating; keep your kid with a runny nose home; no one can tell if it’s just a cold.
  2. Keep getting tested for COVID-19.  We need to know where it is to eradicate it.

2020 has been a long, dark, year but the vaccines are arriving, bringing renewed hope.  Let’s all do our part and ensure that as many of us as possible make it into the daylight 2021 promises.

A Physician Speaks Out About Long Term Care and COVID19

Dr. Silvy Mathew

The following blog was written by Dr. Silvy Mathew, who is by far one of the smartest people I know, and a dedicated and compassionate family physician to boot. It originally appeared as a Twitter Thread after she chipped in to lend a hand at a Long Term Care facility in crisis. It is being reproduced here with permission.

Tonight is 3rd night of no sleep since I went into a Long Term Care home (nursing home) in Ontario with over a hundred COVID19 positive residents, and almost no staff. So far, my other nursing homes have avoided outbreaks, but what I witnessed yesterday is needing words I don’t have. My brain can’t rest, and I think I’m in shock.

I’m not even tearful. I’m not afraid for myself (although yes the conditions were not good and Christmas with elderly parents is cancelled for sure now). I am just … hyper-vigilant.

I woke up after a couple hrs of sleep, having “dreamt” of another catastrophe. What I think my brain is ruminating on is how many levels have gone wrong here. This isn’t an individual’s fault, this is just so damn systemic. And with the right resources and people in charge, given some power to leverage things, we could probably stop some deaths.

But the system doesn’t allow for that. And asking individuals to do more…and more…and more… While we are all trying to maintain their other responsibilities… This is why things are crashing and burning now. It is traumatizing to say the least.

The worst is that only those of us who share these experiences and work in the same environment, can empathize. Empathy is lacking as a whole in our society, but even among colleagues because it feels (and is) like a war environment. And that itself is shocking nine months in.

At this point, it’s too late to stop events or focus on who’s responsible. Mitigation is key, but requires leadership, ground knowledge, and support.

I can say that the “boots on the ground” were women. All colours, various ages. And yes, a few men. Physicians, nurses, PSWs. Those whose pay is less were more likely to be BIPOC and female. The ones without sleep or breaks? Female.

I wish I took the contact of the RPN I worked with. She was one day new and a superstar. A hero. Maybe I’ll cry at some point but right now, I wish I could sleep.

Open Letter to all Residents of the Georgian Bay Region

The following letter was sent to local media outlets by the Medical Staff of the Collingwood General and Marine Hospital. It has been re-produced here with permission.

To All Residents of Georgian Bay:

A day that we had hoped would never come has sadly arrived.  A concerning rate of COVID19 has been demonstrated in our community and has been reflected in recent hospital admissions, as high as almost 10 per cent of all patients in Collingwood Hospital this past weekend.  The surge in patients hits us at a time when all of us would normally be planning Christmas dinners, trips with friends and family, and looking forward to well deserved vacation time.

As your physicians we have volunteered much of our time preparing for a day like this all the while hoping it wouldn’t come.  We have helped to set up our Covid Assessment Centre.  We have ensured that the hospital continues to have physician coverage and that Emergency care remains unchanged.  We have helped set up drive through flu shot clinics.  We have helped set up an Alternate Health Facility to offload the Collingwood Hospital.  We have attended many extra meetings outside of our normal clinical time.  We have kept local Family Physician offices and the After Hours Clinic open for both virtual and in-person visits. Our Hospital remains open for emergencies as well as routine, scheduled care. 

But now we need your help.

If all of us don’t take necessary precautions to protect our community our hospital is in danger of being overwhelmed, and we may not humanly be able to take care of a large influx of patients.

So we ask all of you:

– Please shop locally but wear a mask in stores, and at all public places

-Please maintain physical distancing of two metres (or one moose length)

-Please stay in your own social bubble of 10 people

-Please ask your friends and family not to come visit you this year

-Please stay home and do not travel to other areas

What we ask of you is difficult.  These asks come at a time of year when social events are the norm.  A time of year when many of us attend celebrations and a time of year when we normally enjoy fellowship with others.

But historically, it is also a time of year when our sense of community and our love for our fellow citizens, has always shone through.  This year, there is no better way of showing our commitment to our community by following the asks we have of you.  In this way, you will show that you care enough about our community to keep it safe and healthy.

We promise to continue to do our part to provide the best possible care to you.  We ask that you help us, help you and those you love.

Yours truly,

Gregg Bolton,

President, Collingwood General and Marine Hospital Medical Staff

Does Bill C-7 Make Assisted Death the Path of Least Resistance?

The following blog was co-written with me by Dr. Leonie Herx, Division Chair and Associate Professor of Medicine at Queen’s University and Past- President of the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians and Dr. Ramona Coelho, a family physician who provides care to a large number of marginalized patients. A version of this opinion piece initially ran in the London Free Press on Saturday December 5, 2020.

As the COVID-19 pandemic dominates the political agenda and strains the country’s health-care systems, the federal Liberals are intent on passing Bill C-7, which proposes to expand medical assistance in dying (MAiD) to those who are not dying. Proponents of the bill state that it allows choice and dignity for those with chronic illness.  However, the bill fails to provide them with the dignity and humanity of requiring them to have good care or access to supports.

As physicians, we witness the struggles that confront our patients and their loved ones every day. Those living on the margins and with disabilities face significant barriers to care though systemic discrimination (ableism) that can make it harder to live a healthy, fulfilling life in community. As doctors we should be instilling hope, supporting resilience and using our expertise to find creative solutions to address health and wellbeing. Instead, we now will be required to suggest assisted suicide as an option.

Spring Hawes, a lady who has a spinal cord injury for 15 years publicly stated, 

“As disabled people, we are conditioned to view ourselves as burdensome. We are taught to apologize for our existence, and to be grateful for the tolerance of those around us. We are often shown that our lives are worth less than nondisabled lives. Our lives and our survival depend on our agreeableness.” 

A choice to die isn’t a free choice when life depends on good behaviours and compliance to societal norms. Sadly, the medical community can be complicit in this messaging.

Gabrielle Peters, a brilliant writer, who has struggled with poverty since her disability, has shared that a healthcare professional sat at her bedside and urged her to consider death. This was just after Gabrielle’s partner announced he was leaving her because she was too much of a burden and she no longer fit into the life he wanted. 

Doctors can pressure someone to die as in Gabrielle’s situation but also more subtly can confirm a patient’s fears that her life is not worth living and MAiD would indeed be a good medical choice.

Day after day, we participate in a healthcare system and a social support system that does not come close to meeting the basic needs of our most vulnerable patients. However, our role as physicians should always be to first advocate that our patients access all reasonable supports for a meaningful life with no suffering.  But alas, Canada does not seem to prioritize health care and supports for all, and soon, that lack of support will be pitted against an option to access death in 90 days.

Patients entrust doctors to make ethical decisions every day regarding their care and to make recommendations that are always aimed at promoting health and healing. The core role of medicine is to be restorative, not destructive. Advocating for our patient’s health and wellbeing, is a solemn oath we took.

As physicians we help our patients do many things in the context of a trusting, shared, decision making process. Doctors encourage healthy habits.  We refuse to prescribe antibiotics when patients have a viral infection, or opioids on demand. We pull a driver’s license when we have concerns for patient safety and the public good. We refuse to write mask exemptions without good reason. We serve both patient and the common good.

All of this requires courage to not betray the trust society and the patient has bestowed on our profession. Society’s belief in the inherent virtue and ethics of the profession has been the necessary basis of the physician-patient trust.  Would you trust your doctor if you thought they didn’t care about your safety and well-being?

While we recognize patients have the right to ask for MAiD, physicians must not be forced to suggest or forced to facilitate this, when reasonable options for living with dignity exist. We must continue to offer our patients what is good and practice medicine with integrity.

As Dr. Thomas Fung, Physician Lead for Siksika Nation stated, 

“Assisted death should be an option of last resort, and not the path of least resistance for the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Conscience protection is needed in this bill, as no one should be forced to participate in the intentional death of another person against their good will.”

One of the most important foundations of our Canadian identity is that we are a caring, compassionate country. We are proud of our universal healthcare mandate, and we place a high premium on being inclusive and tolerant while working hard toward the accommodation and integration of marginalized and vulnerable members of our community. And yet, if Bill C7 is allowed to stand without amendments, we will be in serious danger of losing this fundamental element of our Canadian identity.

COVID19 and Nursing Homes

For those of you who don’t know, I am the Medical Director of Bay Haven Care Community, a combined retirement and nursing home. Below is a letter that I sent to the family members of all the residents of the nursing home, updating them with information about COVID19. Reproduced here so it can be shared if others wish to copy it.

Dear Family Members of Residents of Bay Haven,

As the Medical Director of Bay Haven, I wanted to write to all of you to update you on some important new information about COVID19.

As you are likely aware, Ontario is now firmly in the second wave of the seemingly never-ending COVID19 pandemic.  As I write this, 99 out of 626 nursing homes in Ontario are in outbreak from COVID19.  Thankfully, Bay Haven is not one of them.  I hope and pray that it will stay that it will stay that way, and that the other nursing homes get out of outbreak as soon as possible.

Our knowledge of the COVID19 virus has increased significantly over the past few months.  We still don’t know everything about it, nor do we have a cure, but we can be better prepared than we were in the past.

We now know that the virus is largely spread by what’s called “aerosolized” means.  That’s to say that it is expelled by your mouth when you breath/talk/sing and floats in the air for a large period of time, thus spreading to others.  This is why wearing a mask is so important.  All of our staff and visitors have been required to wear masks for many months, in addition to all the other screening that we do.

With this knowledge, it is becoming more and more apparent for the need for high quality ventilation and air purifiers, particularly those with HEPA filters.  While the physical plant at Bay Haven is quite old, I am extremely grateful that the management of Bay Haven invested in HEPA air purifiers for all the large common areas, even before Health Canada updated their website to indicate the risk of airborne spread.  I applaud their commitment to keeping residents safe.

Additionally, there has been much speculation about the benefits of Magnesium, Zinc and Vitamin D in fighting viruses.  To be candid, the evidence for Magnesium is not that great.  Magnesium may kill viruses “in-vitro” – that’s to say, in a petri dish in a lab – but more study is needed to see how it works in a human body.  But at least it’s not harmful.

There is actually decent evidence that Zinc can help fight off viral infections.  Taking 25 mg of Zinc daily is not harmful and has benefits.

There’s been evidence that Vitamin D can help fight viral infections for some years now. Recently however, a large clinical trial showed that people with low vitamin D levels were more likely to get COVID19.  It’s a very large trial, and the first one I am aware of where the benefits vitamin D were proven for one specific virus.

What can you do?

First, of course we ask that you abide by our visitor polices, that have been mandated by the Public Health Departments.  These policies are sometimes frustrating to follow, but they have been implemented to keep our residents safe.  We ask that you please help us keep your loved ones safe.

Second, if you wish to provide additional protection, you could purchase a small room HEPA air purifier for your loved one.  These would stay next to the head of the bed in the room, and provide additional protection.  Currently they range in price from about $60 to $90 from Amazon. There are other models as well, of course, but they should be HEPA certified to be effective.  At that price, frankly these devices will only last 6-9 months before going bad, but hopefully by that time we will have a vaccine. (While a vaccine is expected shortly, there are many distribution problems with them, and I don’t expect them to be available for a few months).

Finally, if you would like your loved ones to start Magnesium, Zinc and Vitamin D, please let me know by replying to this email, and I will ensure these are ordered. To be clear, this is “off label”- it’s not specifically an approved therapy, but it is at least very safe, and not harmful at standard doses.

None of these measures of course, is guaranteed to prevent a COVID infection, or an outbreak, but right now, represents the best possible protection we can provide.

I hope and pray you all continue to stay safe and well.

Your sincerely, 

Dr. M. S. Gandhi, MD, CCFP

Medical Director,

Bay Haven Seniors

High Dose? Standard Dose? Doesn’t Matter! Just Get A Flu Shot!

Recently, many physicians offices have been inundated with requests for the so called “high dose” flu shot. I know I’ve had many patients ask in my own office, and this is the result of all the publicity around these shots. Pharmacies were specifically advertising that they had the high dose shots available. Heck some pharmacies even offered customers points for getting your shots. Until of course, they ran out. (Memo to pharmacies – unlike Teslas, generally not a good idea to advertise something you can’t deliver on time).

Of course once they ran out came the inevitable concerns expressed about why people couldn’t get a “high dose” shot themselves. I have also heard some isolated reports in my community about people waiting to get their flu shot until the high dose were back in supply.

But here’s the thing. There is no evidence to suggest that the high dose flu shot is actually better than the current standard dose shot. Seriously.

In 2014, a study was done looking at the high dose versus regular flu shots, particularly in older patients. The study clearly showed that there was a higher immune response in older patients with the high dose shot. But from a clinical perspective, it really only made a minor (although what statisticians will call a statistically significant) difference. 1.9% of people who got the standard flu shot went on to get the flu, and 1.4% of people who got the high dose flu shot went on to get the flu, for an effective difference of 0.5%. All this hype for 0.5%??

But more importantly, that study looked at what are called trivalent flu vaccines. In essence, both the standard and the high dose vaccines in the study were good against three strains of the flu.

However, in Ontario, our standard dose flu shot is a quadrivalent. It’s good against four strains of the flu. The high dose continues to be a trivalent. So the option for people in Ontario is to get a flu shot that has a regular dose against four strains, or a high dose shot that is good against three strains only.

Importantly, there has not been a head to head study between the high dose trivalent and the standard dose quadrivalent used in Ontario. Which means no one really knows which vaccine is better.

Heck even the Public Health Ontario Fact Sheet on flu vaccines states there is “insufficient evidence” to recommend one over the other. There is some supposition about the extra B strain that is covered in the quadrivalent vaccine not being as common in those over 65, and perhaps having a lower disease burden, but it’s not really clear cut.

So what should you do?

As I mentioned in my last blog, you should wait until November to get your flu shot. It now being November – GET IT! If you are over 65 and are unable to get the high dose, don’t sweat it, just get the standard one. Because frankly the protection you get from that is still really really good (I mean why all this fuss over a measly 0.5%??). But don’t put off getting your shot now just to wait and see if more high dose vaccines are coming.

It’s time to protect yourself and your loved ones. Both flu shots are good. Get whichever one you can, and let’s help each other stay safe.

Me getting my flu shot at the hands of my trusty nurse…..