Covid is Not Over – and It Won’t EVER Be

As provinces across Canada begin to lift restrictions from the Covid pandemic, there is a plethora of opinions raging about this. Some physicians feel the restrictions are being lifted too slowly. Others feel that it is just right. In Ontario at least, the most outspoken group are the physicians who demand ongoing restrictions. They have taken to using #Covidisnotover on Twitter.

Obviously, when dealing with a once in a century pandemic that has truly decimated patients and health care workers alike, there are still going to be unknowns going forward. But personally speaking, I think we have to realize a couple of things. First, Covid is not over. Second, and most importantly, it never will be.

Is the flu over? Is HIV over? Heck, are measles and RSV over? The answer to all of those is no. The viruses are still around, they are still infecting people and are mutating all the time (that’s why we need an annual flu shot).

There are always a certain amount of these viruses in the ecosystem. Why would Covid be any different? We are not going to completely eradicate Covid.

Given this – the question becomes, what do we do as a society?

One option, and certainly one that is promoted by the #covidisnotover types, is to continue ongoing restrictions, for much longer. Be it mask mandates, enforced vaccine passports, or continued limits on indoor capacity, the message from them seems to be to keep imposing restrictions for……well, I couldn’t really find consensus on an end date.

The most common argument for continuing restrictions (in Ontario anyway) is the continued positive case load. There are more positive cases than ever before, so why should we stop restrictions now?

Well, the short version is that while it is absolutely true that our case load is higher now than in, say October of 2020, many other factors have changed. In October of 2020, there were no vaccines. There were no oral medications that could help treat those who were infected. Guidance on the fact that Covid is airborne was still (shockingly) lacking.

In comparison, in March of 2022 over 90% of the adult population of Ontario has two covid vaccines, and are well on the way to their third. Evidence is clear that the vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing serious complications of Covid. There is now a strong emphasis on good ventilation as a way to reduce the Covid burden. The government is providing funding for Hepa filters in schools and child care settings. A protocol for rolling out the new oral medications exists, and, like all things, supply of the medications will increase with time.

So to compare just case numbers from October 2020 to March 2022, quite frankly is just comparing apples to oranges. We need to take all these other factors into account.

The other common argument is essentially “Look at Denmark!“. Pro restriction types point to the fact that Denmark lifted all Covid restrictions on February 1st, 2022, and now seems to have an exploding number of cases and mortality. Graphs like the one below are designed to shock people into thinking there is a catastrophe in Denmark:

But the graph doesn’t tell the whole story, and in fact a much more nuanced approach requiring a deep dive into the data is needed. I was going to try but I can’t do a better job of it than Michael Petersen did in his twitter thread:

The short version is that because so many people have Covid now, we need to do a better job of determining who died because of a covid infection (usually a covid pneumonia) vs who died of other causes, but incidentally happened to have Covid at the same time. A better graph showing the Denmark situation (taken from Petersen’s thread) taking this into account is here:

Before people start jumping all over this, let me also point out that I am acutely aware that there is a significant spike in deaths in Denmark recently, even if not specifically caused by Covid. We clearly need to do a deeper dive into why there were excess deaths. But part of that deeper dive must include whether deaths were caused by the restrictions themselves (delayed care, depression and mental health issues leading to people just giving up etc). In essence, is the cure (restrictions) causing more harm than the disease (Covid)?

Look, lockdowns and restrictions were initially necessary. There is good evidence that they helped to blunt the course of Covid. But there is also evidence that they have harmed society as well. The economic impacts with record government deficits that will tax our great grand children are well known. However, there are also other health care impacts.

In Ontario, we have a back log of 20 million health care services, leaving many patients feeling forgotten. There are consequences to delayed care and I have seen that in my own practice, and expect to see much more in the coming year. Yes, those consequences sadly will include deaths.

All of this is before we even consider the collateral damage done to mental health especially in our pediatric population. As Dr. Jetelina points out in her excellent sub stack, there has been a world wide increase in paediatric mental health issues. A 24-31% rise in children presenting with mental health issues and a shocking 69-133% (depending on age group) increase in children presenting with suicidal thoughts to Emergency Departments.

What does all this mean?

My personal feeling is that while we cannot ignore Covid (it’s a bad disease) and we need to continue to encourage vaccinations (they work), we need to start looking at the health care system as a whole. Should we mask in high risk areas? Sure. But should we continue to isolate people socially and restrict interactions in a lower risk population, when that clearly causes other harms? I would argue no.

We have been making decisions for a long time based on Covid numbers alone. There are other illnesses and disease that are out there, many of which have been worsened by the restrictions Covid has forced on us. We need to start basing our health care decisions on what’s best for overall population health, not just Covid.

Governments Should Listen to the Experts and Ease Covid Restrictions

It’s time.

For the past two years, the majority of Canadians have done their part to help combat the greatest health care crisis in a generation. We’ve dutifully worn masks, social distanced, gotten vaccinated and done our part to help protect others.

When the pandemic began (has it been two years already?), very little was known about Covid19 and still less was known about how to treat it. Public Health leaders did their best to provide guidance in an ever changing environment. They got some stuff wrong (remember how we were all initially told not to wear masks ?). But they got more stuff right (the lockdowns did help slow the spread of Covid19).

We all paid a terrible price to fight Covid. Job losses. Economic uncertainty. Decreased social interaction. Mental health impacts on ourselves and most troublingly our children. Delayed medical procedures. The list could go on forever.

Through it all however, was the hope that at some point the pandemic would either end, or change to a more manageable form and we could start to live more normal, if not completely normal lives. I submit that time has come.

In Ontario, we have almost 90% of residents over age 12 who have had two covid vaccines. This would be the number we were told was necessary to achieve herd immunity. I understand that most people need three shots. But the reality is that with Covid being a seasonal virus that seems to mutate regularly, we may need annual booster shots. Surely we won’t keep restrictions forever because we will likely need vaccines forever.

Additionally, we now have new promising medications to treat covid infections. An oral medication that is 90% effective in reducing hospitalizations has been approved by Health Canada, and early distribution to those at highest risk has already begun. I appreciate we need to ramp up production of the medication, and have more of it in stock, but at least we have viable treatment options.

It’s not just this old country doctor saying we need to ease restrictions more. Last week, Ontario’s Chief Medical officer of health himself stated that we needed to re-assess the proof of vaccination process. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam admitted that we needed to get back to some normalcy. Despite the fact that British Columbia had some of the highest Covid related death tolls with the Omicron wave, even their provincial Health Officer, the excellent Dr. Bonnie Henry, signalled that restrictions would be easing.

I would note that throughout the pandemic, there have been calls for all of us to “listen to the experts” and follow their guidance. Well, they are all signalling that it’s time to change the approach and that it’s time to start lifting restrictions.

To be clear, the restrictions should not be lifted all at once. There should be a stepwise approach to lifting them, but that stepwise approach should be relatively rapid now.

The first thing to go should be the Vaccine Passports/Mandates. Before I go further let me be abundantly clear – I strongly urge everyone to get vaccinated (unless you are one of the one in 100,000 people who has a legitimate medical reason not to). The covid vaccines were incredibly effective against the alpha to delta variants of Covid. They are “just” really good against Omicron. However, with even Dr. Moore admitting that the vaccines will not stop transmission of the Omicron variant (but will drastically reduce your risk of getting critically ill from it) the passports/mandates make no sense anymore.

As an aside, my loyal readers (both of them) will remember that I wrote on July 30, 2021 that vaccine mandates were a bad idea and would “embolden hesitancy and create more fear and mistrust.” Look what’s happened. We now have our nation’s capital essentially under siege from a convoy of people who have been further emboldened by these coercive measures. Think there is enough trust there to come to an amicable solution? Particularly in light of Dr. Moore’s comments that transmissibility will not change if vaccinated?

This is in no way meant to support whatever the Ottawa convoy/protest/blockade is calling itself right now. They have frankly lost the moral high ground by not calling out the fringe few among them who are anti-semites, racists and just plain loons. They need to leave Ottawa and go home.

None of that, however, changes the fact that since you can get Omicron from a vaccinated person as well as from an unvaccinated person – there is no point to a vaccine passport. Get rid of it now.

Once that’s done, the next step should be to ensure our health care system goes back to full regular work and then some. We are already severely backlogged, and there is a whole lot of overtime needed to catch up on the delayed medical procedures.

Next (and in short order) capacity needs to be increased at restaurants/arenas/other indoor gatherings. We need to allow many of the businesses who have suffered terribly to start getting back on their feet.

The last step should be to remove mask mandates. Covid is airborne, and as such, masks provide a significant amount of protection. It will likely be a bit longer yet before we can say that Covid 19 is endemic (always circulating in the community at a stable level without fluctuating) as opposed to pandemic (essentially prevalent at a higher level with significant impacts on the health care system). So mask rules should be the last to go.

But make no mistake, the harms of all the other restrictive measures, whether on significantly delayed health care procedures, or enormous effects on government budgets and the economy now clearly outweigh the effects of continued restrictions.

It’s time to start lifting.

For those of you interested in such things I briefly spoke about Covid19 on CTV News and the link is below where I did mention vaccine passports had to go.

It’s Time to Open Up Nursing Home Capacity

Recently, I posted what I referred to as a controversial tweet about the need to open up nursing home beds that had been closed during the seemingly never ending Covid pandemic.

While there was not much “controversy” in twitter feed as a result of this, it did lead to some questions being asked during an interview I gave for CTV News.

While I certainly appreciate the professional nature of the reporter (the always adept Kraig Krause), the reality is that 30 second blurb on this topic, in an interview about all things COVID, can’t really do it justice. So let’s delve into this deeper.

It’s no secret that Ontario’s Nursing Homes were hit hard by the Covid pandemic. One nursing home in my region, Roberta Place in Barrie, was ravaged badly by the disease. I still grieve for all of the residents and families there, including those who survived as they likely continue to suffer some of the after effects of what transpired.

In the wake of these and other such stories, the Ontario government quite correctly limited the number of residents in ward beds at nursing homes. Many of Ontario’s nursing homes are very old buildings. The nursing home I’m honoured to be a medical director for has great ownership (private as it happens) and great staff, but the building itself if 52 years old and would not meet newer, more modern standards for nursing homes.

When my nursing home was built, having a ward bed (four residents to a room) was thought to be reasonable. Given that Covid is airborne (like most other respiratory illnesses!) the COVID19 Directive #3 (linked above) for nursing homes limited the number of residents to two per room. This made perfect medical sense at the time, and I certainly supported it then.

The reality however, is that health care is not limited to a single disease. We do have Covid of course, but we have a whole lot of other illnesses that we need to deal with. The Ontario Medical Association has estimated that a minimum of 16 million visits or procedures have been delayed as a result of the pandemic. We can’t keep delaying these. We need to address all the other health care issues that Ontarian’s have, and not just maintain sole focus on Covid.

Right now, I personally have two patients who are in hospital waiting for a nursing home bed. They are not acutely ill. They do not need aggressive medical treatment. They need a nursing home. But they can’t get one because of the massive shortage of nursing home beds. And while I strongly applaud the government for planning to build more beds, they won’t be here for 4-5 years.

At the nursing home I work at, normally 60 patients could be housed, but it’s now limited to 45 because of the rules implemented during the pandemic. I imagine it’s one of many nursing homes that has been limited. While opening up those closed beds (at all the homes) likely won’t be enough, it will help alleviate the stress on hospitals. This is particularly important given (as I write this) no one knows how bad the on coming Omicron wave will be.

But wait – are we not risking increased covid infections in the nursing homes by doing this? We would be increasing, for lack of a better phrase, population density in these homes. The answer is not as straightforward as one would think.

First we now know that three doses of the Covid19 vaccine provides the maximum amount of protection. Just about every resident of a nursing home has had three doses – as have staff. There will never, ever, ever be a vaccine (for any disease) that is 100% effective. But that fact that our most vulnerable patients have had three doses is incredibly reassuring.

Second, we would have to ensure that nursing homes have the funds to put in proper air purifiers (with Hepa Filters) in their facilities. I’m not asking for a complete re-vamp of the HVAC systems (that will take too long). But even small portable air purifiers will make a difference.

Third, we would need to ensure a rapid swab and immunization policy for staff and visitors of nursing homes to further reduce the risk of Covid entering a facility. Just tossing it out there but how about all staff get swabbed once a week regardless of vaccine status, and visitors twice a week?

Fourth, as one of the smartest people I know put it, a bed is just a piece of furniture. We have to ensure that the homes who are short on staff, now have the ability to hire extra staff to take care of the residents in these beds.

The health care system is a behemoth. It is also interdependent on all of its various parts working together. A shortage of nursing home beds, means more people in hospital waiting for nursing homes, which reduces the hospitals ability to provide acute care which leads to further backlogs and delays in medically necessary treatments.

We cannot make nursing homes 100% safe (we can’t make anything 100% safe). But re-opening currently closed nursing home beds in the safest possible manner, will be a small step in the right direction. It will also provide the hospitals with a little bit of extra capacity, should Omicron stress the system more.

Corporatization of Medicine Continues Unabated

Last week, a story came across my feed that seems to have been almost completely ignored by most who are in/or follow medicine and health systems. WELL Health technologies announced that it has purchased 100% of CognisantMD, the developers of the Ocean platform. For those who don’t know, Ocean is a platform that links to various EMRs and allows for securely emailing patients, eReferrals, filling out forms online, and a bunch of other features.

Full disclosure, my practice uses Ocean as well (for now). Personally I find it somewhat clunky and not as smooth as advertised, but there are some positive features to it.

What’s the problem then? It’s a friendly corporate takeover. Happens all the time in the business world.

To understand the concerns, let’s look at what WELL Health does. According to their own website, WELL Health offers a wide array of digital health care solutions. But they also state they are “Canada’s largest outpatient medical clinic owner-operator and leading multi-disciplinary telehealth service provider”. In essence, they run the clinics, and physicians work for them.

A further dive into their strategy, under the “Reinvest” tab states:

“Acquisition of cash generating companies leads to increased cash flows which are re-invested to make additional new cash generating acquisitions.”

Pure and simple – WELL Health is a private, for profit corporation. There is of course, nothing wrong with private corporations. Most people who follow my twitter feed know that I am generally pro-business, and on most issues land on the right side of the political spectrum. I firmly believe we need more, not less, businesses in this country and we need to make it easier for businesses to function.

BUT – acquisitions like these, and the continued take over of clinics by corporations should make us ask legitimate questions about protection of individual health care data. It is no secret that the reasons that companies like Google and Facebook have become so successful is that they found a way to monetize personal data. In much the same way, personal health care data has enormous economic value to companies. Whoever can find a way to properly monetize this, will be the next Jeff Bezos/Mark Zuckerberg and so it’s no wonder that companies are extremely interested in getting into this field.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Shoppers Drug Mart, for example, recently acquired a stake in Maple, a leading virtual care only provider for $75 million. They continue to advertise on their website (as of Dec 6, 2021) the ability to diagnose strep throat virtually (which personally I find questionable) and then to send antibiotics to a pharmacy near you (I’m guessing there is going to be a Shoppers Drug Mart near you).

Screen shot as of Dec 6, 2021

In a circumstance where a patient contacts Maple, the doctor or NP gets paid to virtually assess a patient, Maple gets a percentage of the fee to cover overhead – which presumably will be reflected in shareholder value to Shoppers. If a prescription gets sent to a Shoppers, well, they make a profit there too. Neat business model.

But it’s not just companies that already have an interest in providing health care related services that are trying to get involved in this field. Amazon is jumping into health care with a telemedicine initiative. Google has long planned to get into health care, and while not terribly successful yet, I doubt they will stop trying. Heck even Uber (!) wants to get involved in health care.

It’s easy to see why everyone wants in. There is a lot of money and potential profit in health care. And while I am all for companies making a profit, that doesn’t mean that we can’t ask some hard questions about the protection of personal health care data such as:

  • How secure is the data that is being held in the servers owned by these corporations?
  • How do we ensure personal health data doesn’t go where it’s not authorized? (eg. supposing the parent company owned a family practice clinic AND an disability insurance company)
  • How do we ensure personal health data is not to be used to monetize other aspects of a business (eg. supposing a walk-in clinic was owned by a pharmacy. A patient attends there for a renewal of cholesterol medications, and then gets ads offering, say, flax seed oil capsules that are helpfully sold by that same pharmacy).
  • How do we ensure aggregate health data housed in those servers is only used to help the community at large (eg. finding communities that may need extra resources for, say opiod addiction).
  • If a physician stops working at a clinic owned by MegaCorp Inc. for whatever reason, how does that physician access their charts after the fact (I’m aware of a number of cases where access to patient records were cut off immediately upon the physician leaving such a clinic).

I’ve just posited a few questions. I’m sure there are many more. I believe that most Canadians strongly value health care privacy. As more and more businesses attempt to get involved in health care delivery, it is vital that we have a framework for oversight that ensures that patients have the absolute right to protect their personal health information. Sadly, I don’t see any organization/government agency out there asking these important questions.

Time for the OMA Board to Invoke Arbitration in Stalled Negotiations

While most front line physicians continue to deal with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and the resultant backlog of care, the OMA has continued to perform it’s most important function, that of trying to negotiate a Physician Services Agreement (PSA). A quick summary of what has already been disclosed:

  • The Binding Arbitration Framework (BAF) between the Ontario Government allows for negotiating a Physician Services Agreement (PSA) every four years. The last one was for 2017-2021 . We should already have had an agreement for 2021-2025 but the Covid Pandemic got in the way and delayed negotiations.
  • Negotiations for a PSA are supposed to start the year before expiry of a PSA. There is a framework that allows for a minimum of 60 days for negotiations following which either side can call for mediation. After a minimum of 60 days of mediation, either side (or the mediator) can call for Arbitration.
  • IF Arbitration does occur, the Arbitrator must hand down a ruling within 60 days of the conclusion of the arguments presented at Arbitration. After the ruling is handed down, the work of implementing the Award (or if by some chance an agreement is reached – the PSA) begins, and that in itself can take several months to a year. Those of us who were involved in the last implementation process in any way likely still have nightmares about how complex and fraught with challenges it was – I know I still do.

For the current negotiations, we know the following:

  • Negotiations began in October of 2020. The OMA Board gave the Negotiations Task Force (NTF) a mandate for negotiations. A mandate is essentially a confidential, bare minimum set of asks that the NTF must get from the government before accepting a deal. Considering there is no deal, the NTF clearly has not met that minimum. And no, the members can’t know what that is, it would significantly compromise the negotiations process.
  • Mediation began on April 9, 2021. “A large gap” remained between the OMA’s asks, and the MOH’s offer as of June 2021. As I’m no longer on the OMA Board, I have no idea what the gap is like now. Obviously, if there was no gap, we would have a deal by now.

Why should the OMA Board move to Arbitration now? Why not follow the mediator Mr. Kaplan’s recommendation, and wait till January 25, 2022 to go to Arbitration? Wouldn’t going against his recommendation run the risk of adversely affecting the outcome of a potential award?

Because health care is political in Canada. Being political, the time for governments to attack physicians is always, always, always early in their new mandate. In 1991, the NDP government of Bob Rae imposed a hard cap on the physicians budget (first year in power). In 2015 in the first year of Kathleen Wynne’s government, she also imposed unilteral cuts to physicians and in 2018 the Doug Ford government tried to take away binding arbitration.

The short version of the above is that I’m old, and I’ve been screwed by the government of every political party. It doesn’t matter who wins the provincial election of June 2022, the government that is in power will be sorely tempted to revoke any arbitration award if it seems to meet their short term interests. (Yes I know, the BAF is “evergreen” – meaning the process should continue in perpetuity, but the reality is that governments do stupid things all the time, and if one government has tried to take away a BAF process from physicians to suit their interests, then we can be sure another will as well).

And NO, having Arbitration currently as scheduled for Jan to March 2022 is not good enough. Finishing Arbitration hearings at the end of March gives the Arbitrator until the end of May for a ruling. By that time the election campaign will be in full gear, and Ministry bureaucrats will do absolutely nothing to implement any award as they wait for the outcome of the election.

Obviously, going to Arbitration now entails some risks. The NTF will likely argue that the Arbitrator himself recommended waiting till January, and we should try our best to seem reasonable to him. I have a great deal of respect for the NTF for the job they’ve done for the doctors of Ontario, in particular the negotiation of the BAF. But they are paid a lot of (well deserved) money to let the Arbitrator know of legitimate concerns of the membership.

I’ve met the Arbitrator and I have no doubt he will hand down a fair decision, whether in December or March. But members have every reason based on history to fear politicians of all stripes, and it’s the job of the NTF to let him know that that’s a legitimate concern.

Moving to Arbitration immediately, means the Arbitration hearings end likely by the end of December. An Award is announced (likely) by March. At that point, the government is faced with accepting the award, or revoking it three months before an election, and risking the type of anti-government ads the OMA did so well last time. By the time the election is over, whoever wins, the MOH bureaucrats will be well on the way to implementing the award and any “noise” that the award is too much (there will always be noise) will have gone away.

From the OMA’s Negotiations Page

The OMA’s main responsibility is to negotiate a fair PSA for members. The BAF is the best tool they have for not only keeping the government honest, but for political use to reduce the risk of awards being overturned. (NB- There’s no guarantee of anything, politicians do stupid things all the time. This is simply about risk reduction).

Will the OMA Board stand up for members and direct the NTF to immediately move to Arbitration, as we are now legally allowed to? I guess we’re going to find out.

Conscience Rights are HUMAN Rights

Last year, I wrote a blog about Conscience Rights.  The motivation for the blog was the concerning move by the Ontario courts to “infringe on doctors’ religious freedoms.

I know, I know, the case dealt with whether physicians (and other health care providers) had the ability to refuse to provide a referral for situations where they conscientiously objected. Currently, the hot topic for this scenario is Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD). And yes, the headlines simply said the request for an appeal of a lower court decision on granting physicians conscience rights was denied. I also know there was a lot of talk about the right of the patient to determine their own health care (which is of course must be respected).

But in the text of the initial ruling, the courts clearly and unequivocally admitted that they were infringing on doctors’ rights.

I made a Star Trek reference in my last blog on this issue. Hence, one would be appropriate here. It would seem the Ontario Courts were using the logic first uttered by Mr. Spock in Star Trek 2 – The Wrath of Khan:

“Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

But is that really the case here? Will patients be unable to access legal health care services, simply because physicians are able to keep their fundamental human rights? The short answer is no.

In Ontario, for a service such as MAiD, all a patient really has to do is call the MAiD co-ordination service, and they are guaranteed an assessment. A physician who gets a request for this service simply has to give a patient the 1-800 number to call. Heck, patients can even look the number up online and call themselves without asking their own physician.

In short, the service is readily available to those who want it. The needs of the many are not, in any way, shape or form compromised by Conscience Rights legislation. The Ontario Courts have therefore willingly infringed on the rights of a minority, on the basis of a false premise.

Let me also mention the reaction to my last blog on this issue. I had mentioned that in the near future, we would be facing many ethical dilemmas as a society. Not the least of these include new genetic treatments and therapies. Most physicians were supportive of my blog but some expressed concern that brining up genetic advancements was too extreme. One commentator even used the analogy that seemingly all twitter arguments degrade to – “…can’t compare asking for MAID to asking to revisit the Nazi eugenics movement

And yet.

Look what’s happening in the world.

In China, a group of scientists have inserted human brain DNA into monkeys. They state the reason for this is to study conditions like Autism. Jeez, have these people never seen Planet of the Apes????

As Elon Musk dreams of colonizing Mars, scientists are now actively looking at “tweaking” the DNA of people who wish to colonize Mars as a way to protect them from harmful radiation and microgravity. There is even thought being given to merging our DNA with tardigrades (weird microscopic creatures that can seemingly survive anything).

This s all in addition to work that is being done by companies like Neuralink (another Elon Musk organization) to develop brain implants.

Indeed, as Davis Masci pointed out last September:

“But thanks to recent scientific developments in areas such as biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology, humanity may be on the cusp of an enhancement revolution. In the next two or three decades, people may have the option to change themselves and their children in ways that, up to now, have existed largely in the minds of science fiction writers and creators of comic book superheroes”

These aren’t some weird tabloid, National Enquirer type stories. There are real scientists actively doing this kind of work. The point being that protecting Conscience Rights is not just about MAiD, it’s about ensuring that on a go forward basis, peoples fundamental freedoms are not impugned in what promises to be the most ethically challenging time for science in human history. It’s about ensuring that people do not have to work on or accept for themselves, things that they find morally objectionable.

As a free society, we have always recognized certain inalienable human rights. It’s not just the right to free speech, assembly or vote. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms specifically mentions freedom of conscience and religion (see section 2). This was due in large part to a recognition that a diverse society is a stronger society and in order to protect that diversity, we must protect fundamental freedoms.

That’s where the judges erred last year. By infringing on the rights of a few, stating that by doing so they were protecting the right of many (which as I’ve shown above, isn’t even the case), the judges have damaged our society as whole, and made it easier to take away more rights from more people. They failed to realize that you cannot make a society stronger, or more free, by taking away the rights of a minority. You only increase the possibility of taking away more rights in the future.

As a society, we must be ever watchful for these infringements on our freedoms. To use another Star Trek quote, this time from Captain Jean-Luc Picard (nerd alert – TNG episode “The Drumhead”):

Vigilance. That is the price we continually have to pay.

Let’s Discuss the Astra Zeneca Covid Vaccine

The following blog is written by Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik, MD, CCFP. She is the founder of ARCH Clinic Guelph and Waterloo, Founding Director of Bracelet of Hope and Founder of the Hope Health Centre

Let’s discuss the AstraZeneca vaccine.  I am just going to give you some facts.  You can make your own decision about the AstraZeneca vaccine.

On March 29th,  Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended provinces pause on the use of the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine on those under the age of 55 because of safety concerns. NACI’s priority is vaccine safety.   Their decision came after the European Medicines Agency ( EMA), Europe’s Health Canada equivalent, investigated 25 cases of very rare blood clots out of about 20 million AstraZeneca vaccines given.  On March 18th the EMA concluded that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine far outweigh this risk if there is a true increased risk of the blood clots.

Most of these rare blood clots occurred in women under the age of 55 ( 18 out of 25).  Thus, NACI’s recommendation to halt the use of the AZ vaccine in this age group pending further review of the ongoing real-time research.

So, 25 cases out of 20 million vaccinations is a risk of about 1 in a million.  That means that if there actually is an increased risk, the risk is 1 case of the rare blood clots out of 1 million vaccines given. One in a million.

Let’s shed some light on that: The risk of blood clots developing among new users of oral contraceptive pills ( birth control pills) is 8 out of 10,000. Thirty four out of 10,000 women who use  hormone replacement therapy ( HRT ) will develop a blood clot at some point.  And, the risk of developing a blood clot in women in general  is is 16/100,000. 

The Canadian maternal mortality rate ( the rate of death in women during childbirth) is 8.3 deaths per 100,000.

No medical intervention is without risks.  The question is, should we take that risk?  That is what NACI will try to figure out in the coming weeks. Let’s balance that risk of 1 in a million with the risk of COVID-19. 

A new briefing note from a panel of science experts advising the Ontario government on COVID-19 shows a province at a tipping point. Variants that are more deadly are circulating widely, new daily infections have reached the same number at the height of the second wave, and the number of people hospitalized is now more than 20 per cent higher than at the start of the last province-wide lockdown.

These variants are more dangerous and more easily transmitted.  They cause 2.5 to 4.1 deaths per 1000 detected cases.  That’s deaths.  The risk of serious complications with the variants is double the risk of the original COVID-19 virus:  20 out of 100.

Here’s a quote that scared me.  “Right now in Ontario, the pandemic is completely out of control,” Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director and a professor of medicine and epidemiology with the University of Toronto and member of Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is over 70% effective up front and almost 100% effective at preventing deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19. Breathe.  It is not time to throw out the baby with the bath water.  No blood clots have occurred in people over 60.  We should continue using the AstraZeneca vaccine in this age group which is most at risk of serious complications and death from COVID-19.

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:

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…..

Physician Autonomy Essential for Good Patient Care

Several years ago, one of my colleagues was having a disagreement with an external health care agency. She’s a very bright young family physician, and is extremely passionate about one part of comprehensive family medicine care. She really felt the external agency was failing in providing a reasonable level of service for one group of marginalized patients. In particular, she felt the agency’s process for accepting referrals was deeply flawed.

After months of advocacy by her, the agency finally reviewed their intake process. They then pronounced that everything was ok, because 90% of the referrals were processed accordingly.

In response, my tenacious colleague sent an email to all the family docs in the area, asking them for feedback on the referral process. She the proceeded to blast said agency for the 90% processing rate. “If a server at McDonald’s got the order wrong 10% of the time, would he still have a job?” was the line in her email that really got everyone’s attention. As a result, my colleagues sent feedback, the external agency’s response was proven inadequate, and changes were made. In her own way, my colleague was following the wisdom of Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

It also shows, in one neat example why physician autonomy is so important to patient care. Because without that autonomy, and independence, we can’t speak out. We can’t advocate for our patients even if it makes bureaucrats uncomfortable. We can’t expose those situations where patient care has been compromised.

This is, of course, exactly what those who want to take autonomy away from us want. For the most part this includes two types of people. First are health care bureaucrats, who feel that because they control the purse strings, everything should be done their way, and no pesky front line physicians should dare question their judgement or expose their flaws. The second group consists of a small number of physicians, who, while well intentioned, feel that physicians autonomy impedes whatever fancy new health program they want to implement.

Suppose you are an employee in the IT department of a corporation. You make a statement like say, “If our legal department worked at McDonald’s they would get fired because they get orders wrong 10% of the time.” What happens then? Human Resources gets involved, you get called out for making derogatory comments, the CEO might even get involved, you get disciplined and basically told to shut up. Even (especially?) if you are right in the first place.

This is exactly what those who oppose physician autonomy want.

The anti-autonomy crowd feels that physicians resist change. Therefore, the thinking goes, physicians will use their autonomy and independence to impede whatever new program/model/team is being promoted. Hence, autonomy must be curtailed so physicians can do what they are told, and accept whatever the powers that be tell them is good for them.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The vast majority of physicians are open to new ways of doing things. If they truly believe a new process will help their patients, and help their lives, they will adapt. This is why we use new medications, new treatment protocols and yes, newer models of health care delivery than we used in the past. Medicine would not have changed so much in the past 25 years, if it wasn’t for the willingness of physicians to explore newer and different methods of delivering health care.

But as my friend’s example shows (and there are many like hers), what is essential to the provision of good patient care, is for physicians to retain their ability to speak out. My friend saw an area where a health care agency was failing a group of patients. Because she didn’t have to fear retribution in the form of being hauled up in front of Human Resources, she was able to effectively advocate for patients (who in this case happened to be too frail to advocate for themselves). Eventually, due to her persistence, the agency recognized their errors and fixed their flawed process.

In much the same way as we explore transforming the health system again (in Ontario these are to be done with the Ontario Health Teams or OHTs), it is fundamentally important to ensure that physician autonomy is protected in these models. This will allow physicians to speak up if the implementation plans are not going the way they should, or if programs promoted by the leaders are not really going to help patients. While painful for those in charge to hear criticisms, it results in better outcomes in the long run because the new programs will be better, stronger and more effective.

Let’s hope that as the new OHTs are developed (full disclosure, I support the concept) the message of the essential nature of physician autonomy is not lost. Physician autonomy has allowed us to be the best possible advocates for patient care in the past. If we can no longer, as Ginsburg urged, fight for the things we care about, it will be the patients who suffer.