Get Your Flu Shot…. AND Your Covid Booster.

I’ve written about the importance of getting flu shots before. I continue to be grateful for people who are being pro-active about their health, even if the phone calls to my office asking when the flu shot is coming get to be bit much.

This year there seem to be two main themes in all the phone calls we are getting.

1) What is the ideal interval between getting the flu shot and a Covid booster?

This one is relatively straightforward. The human immune system is designed to handle multiple threats at a time. We can handle multiple vaccines at a time. When infants get immunized at 2,4 and 6 months, they get Tetanus/Diptheria/Pertussis and Polio (and in many jurisdictions Rotavirus and Haemophilus) vaccines all at the same time. We’ve been doing this for decades and it’s served us well.

So getting the flu shot and Covid vaccine on the same day is not an issue. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States has clearly indicated this. What is important however, is that the flu shot really needs to be timed properly for peak effectiveness. Again, I’ve written about this before, but the short version is you should get a flu shot in November, so that the vaccine will have peak efficiency during flu season.

If you happen to be due for your Covid booster in November, that’s ok, get both shots at the same time. On the other hand, if you are not due for your Covid booster for a couple of months, please do not put off getting your flu shot.

2) Do I really need a flu shot?

I am hearing this question more often and it saddens me. It is true that the past two flu seasons were relatively mild. The measures we implemented to prevent us from getting Covid (masks, social distancing, etc) also prevented us from getting ALL respiratory illnesses, including the flu. Perhaps people have forgotten how bad the flu can be.

If you have a cough, or the sniffles or a low grade fever, that’s just a cold. It’s not “a touch of the flu”. If you have the flu, in addition to those three symptoms, you will feel like you got run over by a truck twice. The second time because the flu virus will have wanted to to ensure you really really felt it’s presence. Muscles you never knew existed will hurt for days, and it will be an experience you won’t soon forget.

If you are a senior, or someone who for whatever reason has a weakened immune system, the flu will make you more prone to getting a serious complication like pneumonia. You will wind up in hospital, or worse.

With many of the Covid restrictions easing it is reasonable to anticipate that this coming flu season will be worse than the last two years. Australia, which also lifted many Covid restrictions, just came off their worst flu season in five years and their pattern is often repeated in North America. So yeah, anticipate a much worse flu season this year.

Additionally, the number of boosters we need to protect ourselves from Covid seems to increase every few months, and a certain amount of “vaccine fatigue” does set in. I get it, I really do. It can be tiresome to be told you need yet another shot. But you do.

One issue that I have not been asked about, but we should talk about, is what happens if you do get the flu. Hopefully you will “just” be sick for a few days, and then get over it. But unfortunately, we have to consider the possibility that you may get a severe case, and have complications that require you to go to hospital.

I recognize some will accuse me of fear mongering, but in that scenario, you really need to consider the possibility that the care you need (and paid tax dollars for) may not be available. This past summer, media was littered with headlines about this hospitals closing beds, having trouble finding staff and even shutting down ERs. Heck the Chelsey hospital ER is being shut down for months! Do you really think that trend is going to magically end when flu season comes around?

The sad reality is that if you do get a complication from the flu, you may wind up with no one to provide you with the care you need going forward.

What’s the best thing you can do?

First, just about everybody over the age of six months should get a flu shot to protect themselves and their loved ones. The number of people who truly, truly have adverse reactions to the flu shot is very low. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

Second, for people who are in nursing homes and retirement homes, it probably is worthwhile getting the shot the last week of October. These patients are truly truly high risk, and it may take them longer to develop immunity.

Third, for most other people in the community, wait till November to get your flu shot. This will ensure that we all have a reasonable amount of immunity until the end of the flu season.

Yours truly getting a gentle flu shot from a gentle nurse…

Finally, get the new bivalent Covid booster as soon as you are eligible (for most people it’s three months after their last booster or a Covid infection). Once again, the chance of a true reaction to the Covid Vaccine is exceedingly low. Much lower than your risk of complications from Covid.

Immunizations continue to represent one of our strongest tools to stay healthy. Outside of clean water/sanitation, they are arguably the most successful public health measure in the history of humanity. Let’s all do our part to stay healthy and protect those around us.

Disclaimer: The opinion above is not individualized medical advice. It’s meant for the population as a whole. If you have specific questions or concerns, speak to your doctor.

What is Going on at Sunset Manor?

Full Disclosure: Sunset Manor is a public, long term care facility in Collingwood, Ontario. I don’t have patients at Sunset Manor. The only interaction I have with Sunset Manor is when I am on call. My personal experience is that the nature of those calls from them has been no different than those from other long term care homes. All the information in my blog is based on what has been publicly reported in the media (with links attached as appropriate).

In June of 2021, the Ministry of Long Term Care issued an order to stop admissions immediately, to Sunset Manor in Collingwood. According to the CTV News Barrie report:

  • The Ministry stopped admissions because of a belief “that there is a risk of harm to the health or well-being of residents in the home or persons who might be admitted as residents.”
  • Sunset Manor received “several written notifications and compliance orders” for not following requirements highlighted after inspections between July 2018 and April 2021.
  • What shocked me the most – the Ministry stated “There are reasonable grounds to believe that the licensee cannot or will not properly manage the long-term care home or cannot do so without assistance.”

Bureaucrats generally tend to use bland, inoffensive language to avoid controversy. That last sentence jarred me. I’ve lived through some pretty bad health care facility situations in my time and have never seen a sentence that strong.

As I write this blog, Simcoe County’s website lists Jane Sinclair as the General Manager of Health and Emergency Services for Sunset Manor, which would make her the admin person in charge of the place.

The CTV News report stated:

  • Jane Sinclair called the ministry’s report “excessive,” adding,  “We don’t agree with the level of severity of these ministry findings.”

Over a year later, Sunset Manor still isn’t allowed to accept new patients, and an exclusive article on Collingwood Today suggests why. You can read the whole article for more details but briefly, Sunset Manor is alleging that the investigations were tainted because an ex-employee of Sunset Manor, Katy Harrison, was part of Ministry Inspection team. Jane Sinclair swore out an affidavit that she told the Ministry the termination of the ex-employee was “not amicable”. Sinclair further states she complained to the Ministry in 2019 about having an ex-employee do an inspection of the home stating she “could not conduct a fair and impartial inspection of the home.”

However, the Ministry elected to have her continue inspecting Sunset Manor as a “junior” member of the team. They state the allegations of bias are “spurious and unsupported by evidence” and that multiple officials inspected Sunset Manor, not just Harrison.

There’s a whole set of details about the inspection process in the Collingwood Today article that I won’t bore you with. But I will note that the article points out there have been four further inspections of Sunset Manor since last June, none by Harrison, and the facility remains closed to new admissions.

Generally speaking, the admin person at an LTC would report to the representative of the owners (in this case the County of Simcoe) to inform them how things are going. As I write this blog, the County of Simcoe’s website indicates that person is one Mark Aitken, the CAO. The website further states one of his responsibilities is overall management for Long Term Care and Seniors Services. Yet another wrinkle thrown into this mess is that Mark Aitken is married to Jane Sinclair. (Yes I know it was a letter to the editor, but it has gone un-retracted which the press would do if it was challenged).

In summary, Sunset Manor has been repeatedly investigated by the Ministry of health over the past four years. One of the investigators was an ex employee whom the Manor feels was biased. As a result of investigations, Sunset Manor has not been allowed to admit new residents to the facility for over a year. The Administrator answers to the owner (or in this case, the owners representative) who happens to be her husband. The response of the owners is to sue the ministry alleging the inspections were biased and unfair.

Here’s my take.

1) I think it was wrong of the ministry to allow ex-employee to investigate Sunset Manor. I’m in no way suggesting that Miss Harrison acted inappropriately. The reality however, is that optics matter. If you’re going to level the most serious punishment possible to a long-term care facility you need to make sure that there’s absolutely no margin for people to think that that punishment is anything other than completely justified.

2) Similarly the administrator of Sunset Manor should not be reporting to her husband. The Administrator may have handled the situation perfectly, but again optics matter. The public needs to be reassured that if the Administrator made a mistake, appropriate action would be taken, and people won’t believe that if your spouse is your boss. (ADDENDUM: While the Simcoe County Website continues to list Mr. Aitken as the person responsible for LTC – please see the first comment below from Mr. Manary – who wrote the initial letter stating Mr. Aitken and Ms. Sinclair were married. At this time I’m simply putting the information out there, but if there is a factual correction to be made by someone in authority at County of Simcoe – I will do so).

3) You know how there are people like Dr. Samir Sinha who write articles that we must stop private nursing homes? Or that tweet the incessantly that public long term care facilities are better? Sunset Manor is public.

This situation has been allowed to drag on for over a year to the point where according to Collingwood today there are now 43 empty beds at Sunset Manor. While four compliance orders have been lifted, the home was fined another $5,500 for failing to comply with medication management.

The frustrating thing is it it should never have come to this. It’s a travesty when we have so many people waiting for long-term care beds. I recently had a patient wait over 90 days in hospital for one. Getting Sunset Manor open again would really help our community.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong here, but hopefully whatever needs to be done there gets done, and our seniors can once again get the care they deserve, in the location they need.

All Ontarians Should Hope New Health Minister Sylvia Jones Succeeds

New Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones

Sylvia Jones is now Ontario’s Minister of Health, the largest, most volatile ministry in government. The Ontario Medical Association’s (OMA) correctly tweeted about this:

My first thought when I saw this was a somewhat flippant “should have sent her condolences instead.” Minister Jones has a whole lot of headaches going forward. To succeed, she pretty well needs to be perfect. A cursory glance at the issues she faces is mind boggling.

Should she support further lifting of Covid-19 restrictions? This will make some doctors mad. Should she instead support re-introducing mask mandates and tightening of Covid-19 policies? This will make other doctors angry. Worse, both sides have credible experts, so the whole “listen to the experts”can’t apply when the experts themselves are saying different things.

There is a Health Human Resources crisis unfolding in Ontario (and Canada). Hospital ERs are being closed due to staffing crises and there does not seem to be a quick solution. As more health care workers plan on retiring or leaving the profession early, finding replacements is going to be exceptionally challenging.

The Long Term Care (LTC) situation is equally dire. Wait times for LTC beds in Ontario are skyrocketing. In 2017 I wrote about how we needed 26,000 hospital beds right away, and another 50,000 by 2023. More beds are being built by the Ford government, which is great, but they will take time to arrive.

A quick solution to ease the burden would be to allow older homes who had ward beds in their facilities, open them up again. Rules were changed under covid to no longer allow 4 residents per room. However, if you do that, people will scream you are committing gerontocide. (This is despite the fact that just about all residents in nursing homes have got four covid shots now).

Need more? (As if that wasn’t enough). Over 20 million medical procedures were delayed due to the pandemic. Many of these procedures are early detection screening tests for cancer (sooner you catch, the sooner you cure and, cold-heartedly, the less cost to the health care system).

How about wait times? Wait times for medically necessary procedures continues to rise. MOH bureaucrats like to refer to these as “elective” procedures. But the reality is that if you are suffering from knee pain every day, and have to wait a year to get a knee replacement, it’s not elective, it’s necessary.

All of which makes me realize just how courageous Minister Jones is to take on the Health Portfolio. Allah/God/Yahweh/(insert deity of your choice) knows I wouldn’t want the job. But if I may, I would suggest the Minister should focus on a few things in the first year, as even improvements in a couple of areas will have benefits across the health system.

A word of caution first. She should take what bureaucrats tell her with a grain of salt. There were a few times when I was on the OMA Board when it became obvious that the MOH Bureaucrats had NOT fully informed then Health Minister Christine Elliot about some issues around physicians that caused needless kerfuffles. The bureaucracy has a certain way of thinking that is rigid, ideological and focussed on self perpetuation as opposed to making meaningful change.

I don’t always agree with columnist Brian Lilley of PostMedia, but he hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

“…Ford and his team shouldn’t rely on the Ministry of Health for solutions. These are the people who got us into this mess and who have been failing upward for years..”

and

“..Ford has a real opportunity to change health-care delivery, to speed up access to services, to do away with wait lists and all without changing the single-payer system that Canadians rely on..”

The last comment lines up nicely with the first part of the OMA’s Prescription for Ontario, where they recommend developing outpatient surgical clinics to move simple operations out of hospitals and free up beds. The bureaucracy will oppose it because they are incapable of new ways of thinking and are beholden to hospitals. But at least the Minister will have the support of Ontario’s doctors to work through some of the blowback (there’s always blowback to anything new).

The other easy win is to develop a digitally connected team of health care providers for each patient (also an OMA recommendation). We have something similar in the Georgian Bay Region for the past 12 years and I cannot stress how much it has improved patient care. If I have a patient in need of increased home care, all I have to do is message the home care co-ordinator directly from their chart and ask for help, and they usually respond within 24 hours among other benefits.

This also ties in with a project I was pushing hard for during my term on the OMA Board that got sidetracked mostly by the pandemic but also with some political issues around OntarioMD. I remain convinced that had that project gone forward there would be people alive today that aren’t because of the improved communication it would have provided. But at least preliminary work on it has been done, and with a nudge from the Health Minister this could potentially be restarted to give patients a digitally connected health care team.

NB- this is another area where the Digital Health Team at the Ministry of Health is going in the wrong direction. Their plans are (in my opinion) needlessly complex and won’t result in the kind of robust digital health infrastructure that is absolutely essential to a high performing health care system.

In short, Minister Jones has a monumental task ahead of her. Someone will will criticize her no matter what choices she makes (it’s no secret that health care is referred to as the third rail of politics). If however, she can set, say, three attainable goals in her first year (my suggestions would be open LTC beds, start building outpatient surgery clinics and get the digital infrastructure done), while keeping the bureaucrats in check, then real progress can be made in improving the health system.

All Ontarians, regardless of political stripe, should hope she succeeds. Our crumbling health system depends on it.

Open Letter to the Emergency Operations Centre

I wrote this email on March 23, 2021 to the Emergency Operations Centre of the Ministry of Health in regards to Directive #3 which places significant restrictions on the residents of Long Term Care homes during the pandemic. The email has gone unanswered and so I making it public today.

Hi there,

I’m currently the medical director for Bay Haven Long Term Care in Collingwood Ontario.  I had sent the email below asking for some easing of restrictions for our LTC as we now have all but two residents (new admits) who were fully immunized for COVID-19.  Our medical officer of health, Dr. Colin Lee expressed that while he was sympathetic, he could not overturn Directive #3, and asked that forward you with my original email.  I would ask that you please consider the overall well being of the residents in LTC centres like mine, where we have almost full immunization.


Begin original letter:


Hi Xxxx, 

I understand you are the contact person at Public Health for Bay Haven.  I’m hoping that you can help me advocate for the residents of the nursing home.  As you are aware, most nursing home residents throughout the province are suffering from “confinement syndrome”.  The year long isolation caused by the COVID pandemic has had a devastating effect on their emotional health and the residents are really struggling as a result.  

As the Medical Director, I see these issues when I visit, and it pains me to see how much the mood of the residents has gone down in the past year.  Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the rational behind some of the restrictions that have been put in place, and I have supported those restrictions.  They were important to protect the health and safety of Bay Haven, and we have been fortunate to not have a COVID outbreak in our facility. 

But we also now are in a situation where all but two of the residents (new admits) are immunized for COVID and a good number of staff are immunized as well.  With that, I need to focus on the other aspects of care for the residents.  

The blunt reality however, is that Bay Haven will not go against Public Health directives, no matter what I personally think of them.  So I need your (or somebody in public health’s) support to change some of the directives. 

I want to point out that the most recent data shows that the COVID vaccines DO, in fact, reduce transmission (https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/pfizer-covid-vaccine-cuts-transmission-coronavirus-new-real-world-study-n1260542).  This is unsurprising as every other successful vaccine also reduces transmission, but we now have proof of this.  In fact, transmission of COVID is reduced after just ONE dose of the vaccine (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/pfizer-covid-19-vaccine-reduces-transmission-after-1-dose-study-finds_n_6038e92ec5b6b745c4b655ba). 

With that, I would like to implement the following changes (and need Public Health to support): 

1) We continue to have less than 100% of our staff immunized.  To encourage more of them to be immunized, I would like to stop screening with np swabs, those that have been immunized (two weeks after their second shot).  Nobody likes getting an NP swab.  If the un-immunized staff see that they will not be subjected to this test, it might encourage them to get their own shots.  And we get to save our swabs for those who really need it.  (Addendum – Since this letter is public, what I was not aware of when I wrote the original is that Bay Haven actually has one of the highest percentages of nursing home staff who’ve been immunized in the province – almost 80%! Having said that, nothing wrong with going for the other 20%)

2) All the residents who have been immunized need to be allowed to go back to congregating as usual.  This includes all their group activities and sessions. 

3) We should allow an increased number of visitors to the facility.  I would agree the visitors should have proof of either immunization, a recent negative COVID swab, or be willing to have a rapid swab done in our facility.  I think each resident can assign 4 people who can come and visit, and we can work on putting a limit on the number of visitors at any one time.  

4) If a resident has been immunized, they should be able to leave the facility for social gatherings, not just medical appointments.  Whoever drives them would need to have proof of immunization, a recent swab or have an NP swab in our facility since they presumably enter the building.  But the immunized resident cannot (as per the articles above) bring back and transmit the infection themselves. 

If Public Health could support this, it would go a long way to improving the mental health of the residents and improve their quality of life.  It’s the least we can do after all they have done for society over their years.   

Sohail Gandhi, MD, CCFP

Medical Director, Bay Haven Seniors

Letter to the Staff of My Nursing Home

Note: The following is a letter I sent to all the staff of Bay Haven Seniors, a joint Retirement and Nursing Home. There has been rather a lot of variable information about the new Covid vaccines out there, and I wanted to address that up front. Some of this information may help you as well, so I’m copying it here.

To:  All Staff at Bay HavenFrom: Dr. M. S. Gandhi, Medical Director
Re: New Vaccines for COVID19


As I think all of you are now aware, Bay Haven has been fortunate to have our staff given the opportunity to immunize early with the new vaccines for COVID19.  There has been much written about the vaccines in print and on Social Media (unfortunately!!) .  I wanted to let you know about some information on the development of the vaccine, and why I do strongly encourage people to get the vaccine.


In “normal” times (remember those?), when a drug company thinks about whether it’s a good idea to develop a vaccine for a certain disease, there is a bit of convoluted process that has to happen first.  Some officious bureaucrat at the drug company does a cost analysis on how much it will cost to make the vaccine and how much profit could be made from it.  Then it goes to a regulatory body in the host country where some other pointy headed bureaucrat looks at how widespread the disease is and whether it’s worth while to approve a trial.  Then it goes back to the company where some lawyer reviews the cost/benefit ratio, whence it goes back to the officious bureaucrat and then back to the pointy headed one.  Amazingly enough (and I’m not kidding here) this process can take 2,3, even 5 years before a trial even begins.


This time, every body agreed right off the bat that it was good idea to have a vaccine for COVID19, and so the up to five years of paperwork was eliminated. Seriously, that bureaucratic bafflegab can take that long.


The next step after the paper work is done is for a vaccine to undergo three phases of trials.  It’s important to know that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines DID undergo all three phases of trials.  Given the catastrophic situation around COVID, the trials were done quickly, but they were fully completed.  The Pfizer trials had about 42,000 people (by the way about 35% were people of colour ).  The Moderna vaccine had over 30,000 people (also with 35% people of colour).  The trials were extremely successful (94-95% effectiveness).  

The main side effects are the same as you would get from just about every other vaccine (pain at the injection site, fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain, fever).  These side effects are rare and and if they occur, go away in a couple of days.


There has also been a lot of talk about the fact that these are the first vaccines to be developed using “mRNA” technology.  I appreciate that when people talk about genetics, it can cause many people to have second thoughts.  But, mRNA technology has been studied for something like 30 years now in the oncology field.  Additionally, mRNA cannot and will not affect your genes.  It’s your genes that make mRNA in your body.  Your mRNA can’t go backwards and affect your genes.  


In short mRNA vaccines are an efficient, safe process.  They actually herald a new era of vaccine development that promises rapid and effective prevention for new pandemics in the future.  This is a good thing.


I also want to address some concerns about side effects circulating on social media.  The first is with respect to Bell’s Palsy.  There were four people in the Pfizer trials who developed Bell’s Palsy (now recovered) after getting a dose of the vaccine.  This translates to a side effect rate of .01%.  However, the “background rate” for Bell’s Palsy is .03%.  Put another way, if we were to simply pick 40,000 people at random, and watch them for a year, we would expect 12 people to get Bell’s Palsy.  This is why health professionals don’t feel that Bell’s Palsy is related to the vaccines.


Second, there is some talk about anaphylactic reactions (which can happen with any vaccines).  With the Pfizer vaccine the concern is polyethylene glycol.  Moderna has this in their vaccine too, but it seems in a different manner.  There may be some concern about this for patients who have severe allergies (to the point that you carry an epi-pen).  The best recommendation I could give is that if, and only if, you allergies are so bad that you need an epi-pen, it would be reasonable to wait for the Moderna vaccine (which just got approved today).  We expect this vaccine to be available for distribution in February.  If you do not need an epi-pen, then you should get the Pfizer one as it is out already.


If you want additional material, there is a nice thread from one of Ontario’s leading infectious disease specialists here:
https://threader.app/thread/1338610832884854784


There’s also a great interview with one of Ontario’s leading allergists/immunologists here:
https://twitter.com/jkwan_md/status/1339344606555746305


Finally, I would like to thank all of you for all the hard work you have done this year.  2020 is a year that we will never forget, and I suspect a year that we are all anxious to give the boot too.  Yet despite the hardship, the challenges and the seemingly unending (bad) surprises, you have continued to keep the residents safe, clean and comfortable.  Providing this at the latter stages of peoples lives is the absolute minimum sign of respect we can show, and the staff have done that in spades this year.


Thank you again, and allow me to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Dr. M. S. Gandhi

Medical Director, Bay Haven

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.