Ontarians are gaining ground in their fight against the pandemic — in spite of their governments

OPINION: We can start feeling more confident about the case numbers. It’s harder to be confident that Ottawa and Queen’s Park have their eyes on the ball
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 29, 2021
Major-General Dany Fortin (right) and Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo at a COVID-19 news conference in Ottawa on December 30, 2020. (Justin Tang/CP)

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Let’s start with the good news: in the past week, Ontario’s COVID-19 numbers have started to drop reasonably quickly from their post-Christmas highs. But that comes with at least two caveats: The numbers of people in hospitals, especially in ICU beds, has not dropped as quickly or as much yet (that’s to be expected). And the number of people currently sick with COVID-19 — “active cases,” in the language of the province’s data — is falling more slowly. Still, for 10 days or so, the numbers have been doing what we want them to, and that’s worth cheering at the end of the week.

There are still hazards out there, a fact that was made clear in Thursday’s medical briefing: new variants are in Ontario now, today, and they have the capacity to spread much faster than COVID-19 Classic™. Some evidence from the United Kingdom suggests the variant first identified there might also be more dangerous in terms of health impacts, but, at a certain point, this is a distinction without a difference: a virus that makes more people sick faster is going to cause more harm overall even if it’s not actually more lethal to the people it infects.

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Yet another good-news/bad-news item, then, is that (good news) the measures we were already taking to control COVID-19 should help keep the prevalence of the U.K. variant and others down, but (bad news) it could also mean that public-health measures need to be stricter, and last longer, than they would otherwise: Adalsteinn Brown, of the province’s science table, noted that France, which relaxed its lockdown measures, has seen a slow climb back up in its daily cases after having wrestled them down from very high levels in the fall. We are not out of this yet, and we won’t be for a while.

So, given that precarious context, it would be absolutely grand if people in this province could have some measure of confidence that their provincial and federal governments have their eyes on the ball. Unfortunately, there’s been precious little evidence of that this week.

Let’s start with vaccines. My colleague Matt Gurney has explained the provincial cock-up on vaccine data entry, so I don’t need to relitigate that part except to say this: I have a reasonably clear picture of how hard folks across government are working to provide accurate data to the public, and I know how easy an error like that is. But, while the real-world impact of the data error is zero (no more or fewer people actually received vaccines), it’s dispiriting nonetheless. I was one of those people reading the daily data releases and thinking to myself, “Well, things aren’t going perfectly, but 100,000 people fully vaccinated is nothing to sneeze at.” Turns out that, as of 8 p.m. Thursday, it was actually 61,679. Like I said, dispiriting.

But if the provincial situation with vaccine data is regrettable, the attempt at an explanation from federal officials on Thursday was a gong show. Major-General Dany Fortin and Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo visibly struggled to answer some very simple questions, such as “how many vaccines will Canada be receiving by March 31?” and “why have provincial premiers been told that the number has shrunk from 4 million doses to 3.5 million doses?” and “are there five doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine per vial, or six?”

The actual explanation for what’s going on seems to be the following (though it’s important to note that Ottawa reporters have not had actual clear communications from the Government of Canada to work with and instead have had to piece this all together from leaked documents and scraps of information): relatively early on, health-care workers discovered that they could extract a sixth, extra dose of the Pfizer vaccine from the vials being provided if they used a specific type of needle. Ontario officials in background briefings have confirmed that’s been done in this province where possible, describing the vaccine as “liquid gold,” and they’re understandably eager to extract every last drop of. So far, so good.

But Pfizer’s contracts specify that it gets paid per dose delivered; this practice is, in effect, cheating it out of some money. Canada — and many other jurisdictions worldwide — was getting six doses in each bottle but only paying for five. So Pfizer is going to start counting the sixth dose toward its contract delivery targets with the federal government, which will mean a smaller number of vials being shipped overall.

Okay, so long as Canada receives the same overall number of doses, it’s no big deal, right? Not so fast: Health Canada hasn’t technically approved that sixth dose from the Pfizer vials, so all of this is against federal regulations. And there’s real concern that it won’t always be possible to get those bonus sixth doses from every vial. On Thursday, Global News reported that premiers had been told they might receive only 3.5 million doses by March 31; if Health Canada were to change its rules, that number would magically becomes 4 million.

It's a complicated topic, made unnecessarily more complicated by the fact that the federal government is refusing to share information that’s obviously in the public interest. This is stupid behaviour at the best of times, and it’s doubly so during a global pandemic.

Alas, the topic of communications and foolishness brings us back to Queen’s Park. This week saw numerous allegations made by doctors in the public sphere (though mostly on Twitter) that the premier’s office  — or people connected with it — are targeting prominent critics of the government’s pandemic response. Epidemiologist David Fisman is probably the most prominent of these examples, though Brooks Fallis, formerly of William Osler Health System, is another case. The premier’s office has expressly denied having anything to do with this, for the record, though it’s also adopted a petulant tone over this whole regrettable episode: What, it’s okay for doctors to criticize the government, but nobody’s allowed to criticize doctors?

This is silly for two reasons. Nobody is saying it’s impossible to disagree with Fisman or anyone else. I think I’m probably more positive on the government’s performance on school reopening than Fisman is, but I’m also enough of an adult to have a more nuanced assessment of his work than “do I agree with all his tweets or no.” And, even if that weren’t true, citizens and taxpayers of this province are allowed to hold those of us who work in the name of Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Ontario to a higher standard of conduct than randos on Twitter — even if the randos have “M.D.” after their names.

The pandemic has been hard mentally, physically, and otherwise. Some people should probably put their phones down for a bit. But more than anything else right now, people need to see that their government — governments, plural — have their eyes on the ball. We can’t say that about either Queen’s Park or Ottawa this week. The only bright side is that, if we aren’t succeeding because of their efforts, we’re at least succeeding in spite of them.

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