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:

We Need to Learn to Live With COVID-19

“All of this has happened before, and will happen again.” – Lt. Kara Thrace, aka Starbuck, from the Battlestar Galactica (2004) TV show.

An advantage of being old is that whatever is happening, you have likely seen it, or something like it before. Every so often, society undergoes an upheaval and people have to change behaviours. For those of us who were around in the 1980s, there are some stark parallels to what happened then, and what society must do now in 2020.

The early 1980s were a different time not only for how we lived as a society, but for how medicine was practiced. This was particularly true with how we handled body fluids. As surprising as it may be to some younger readers, there was no such thing as universal body fluid precautions back them. If you had a known blood born illness like hepatitis, then sure, extra precautions were taken. But not for every body. When I was in medical school, there were multiple stories of a particularly nasty vascular surgeon who would squirt blood on trainees during surgery if they got an answer wrong to his questions. Needle prick injuries were routinely ignored. There was not a robust sharps disposal system. In short, it was very different.

A huge shift in society, and medicine, came when reports of a novel virus (sound familiar?) became publicized. This virus was new, deadly, and little was know about it. At first, this strange new illness seemed to only affect gay men. This led to all sorts of additional discrimination against the gay community, and even more ostracization then they were already experiencing. Mainstream media outlets routinely referred to it as “The Gay Plague” which clearly didn’t help matters. This also led to whack job conspiracy theories about its origins, some of which persist to this day.

This strange new illness was, of course, eventually named “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” or AIDS and the virus that causes it was identified (Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV). It was recognized that body fluid transmission could spread it and that it was not limited by sexual orientation. We learned it was possible to carry the virus and not have symptoms and you could get it from anyone.

And so, the age of universal blood and body fluid precautions began, and policies around this were implemented in hospitals and other health facilities between 1985-1988.

But there was also a shift in how society responded. Until then, most public service announcements around Sexually Transmitted Disease (like this painfully dated one from 1969) focused simply on encouraging people to get treatment after the fact. And accepting that it was possible for you (yes, sweet innocent you) to get an STD.

AIDS changed all that. Suddenly, an STD could be deadly. Suddenly there was no cure or vaccine. Suddenly, just getting treatment wasn’t an option, and education around prevention was mandatory.

With education, the public took precautions. “No glove, no love” was a popular catchphrase used to promote latex condom use as these were proven to significantly reduce the risk of transmission of STDs (including HIV). Public service announcements shifted to openly talking about prevention.

In short, people and society adapted, and changed behaviours to deal with this new virus.

Today of course, we are faced with a novel new virus, that is clearly deadly and is widely publicized. Little was know about it at the start, and we continue to learn about it. The virus seems to have originated out of China, and this has led to all sorts of anti-Asian racism (including from the President of the United States). There are whack job conspiracy theories about it. As we learn more about the virus, we know asymptomatic spread is possible, and that, yet again, anyone can get it. There is no vaccine (and despite Dr. Fauci’s optimism I’m not holding my breath) and no effective cure.

In response, hospitals and other health facilities are implementing new polices around Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Hospitals are taking extra precautions around elective surgery as the risk of mortality in patients who get COVID19 infections peri-operatively is ridiculously high. In my office I now see patients wearing a mask, eye protection, and surgical scrubs that I immediately remove after my day is done.

And now too, society will be asked to change in response to this most awful virus. The simplest thing to do of course, is to wear masks when you are in an indoor public place, or better yet whenever you leave the house. As mentioned in an earlier blog, one only has to look at Japan where there was poor social distancing, packed public transit and no closure of their famous karaoke bars, but people wore masks, and the number of infections was extremely low. Wearing them also is key to restarting the economy so we can get on with our lives.

Next, we need to accept contact tracing. Aggressive contact tracing in South Korea was largely responsible for their low rates of infection. I was glad to hear that Ontario will be introducing an app to do this. I can already hear the cries of invasion of privacy, but if we are to control this virus, we are going to have to figure out a way to contact trace safely, and protect personal privacy at the same time.

The big difference between the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and COVID19 now is, of course, the economic costs. The economy was never shut down then, and the kind of wholesale level of job loss we are experiencing now in (hopefully) once in a life time.

But if we are to get the economy running (and we must for a whole bunch of reasons, including the fact a good job improves overall health care), then society will need to adapt again. We did it forty years ago, and I believe we can do it again.

I am however, not looking forward to 2060…….