Ontario’s new COVID-19 plan has a surprising — but solid — first pillar

OPINION: Premier Doug Ford today announced the first of six “pillars” for the province’s fall pandemic plan. It focuses on a totally different virus. Here’s why that actually makes sense
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 22, 2020
The province’s fall pandemic plan involves an aggressive push to get more Ontarians vaccinated against the seasonal flu. (iStock/Geber86)

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Ontario’s fall pandemic-response plan is out. And it’s mostly a plan to make more announcements later.

There will be six pillars, Premier Doug Ford told reporters (and the public) on Tuesday. They’ll be announced in coming days as part of a release that has been deliberately staggered, the premier said, to avoid overloading the public with too much information all at once. Normally, I’d view that as bizarrely paternalistic and typical of a country where governments are far too reluctant to share information that’s unquestionably in the public interest — especially since the second wave is clearly already in progress. But, as someone whose brain is already pretty overloaded, I found myself convinced of the wisdom of this. Or at least personally grateful for it.

The first pillar announced today — the totality of the announcement, really — involves an aggressive push to get more Ontarians vaccinated against the seasonal flu this fall. It seemed an odd opening move, given that COVID-19 isn’t even a flu virus. The Toronto Star’s Rob Ferguson, who had the first question for the premier after he and Health Minister Christine Elliott had finished their rather sparse planned remarks, homed in on that exact issue. COVID-19 is the threat. COVID-19 cases are surging here (and around the world). COVID-19 is the virus that has killed nearly 3,000 of us this year.

Ferguson’s question was apt. But the premier’s answer was convincing and prudent.

Though he and the health minister didn’t have much to say, what they did say made clear that we seem to be reverting back to our original pandemic priority: protecting the health-care system from collapse. We did that the first time. Ontario’s hospitals did not buckle under the weight of the first wave the way hospitals in other advanced jurisdictions did. But if the second wave is larger, or if it lands at the same time as the seasonal flu, or if both those things happen at once, we will face that danger again. As I noted here last week, I remain mildly optimistic that we can avoid that scenario. But we’d have to be mad not to plan for it.

And pushing hard on flu shots is actually a smart, achievable means to that end. We can’t yet vaccinate against the coronavirus, and, while we should all keep washing our hands and staying away from people when possible, the reality of our economic reopening and the return to school for children means that we’re going to see COVID-19 cases swing up from lockdown-low levels. That’s unavoidable.

But every flu patient we keep out of hospital means a bed available for a COVID-19 one. It’s grim math, but it works.

There are other reasons to push hard for a flu shot for all. The flu and the coronavirus present with similar symptoms. Ontario’s testing system is already struggling, and the schools reopened only in recent days. (Ford and Elliott said there would be more information about expanded testing coming soon.) Someone with a mild flu will tie up precious resources needed to test and trace for COVID-19. There will almost certainly never be enough testing capacity to go around, whether we’re counting locations, testing kits, or simply the bureaucratic capacity to process and report the results. This is always going to be a chokepoint. An aggressive flu-shot campaign will avoid illness and keep people out of the COVID-19 testing system. It’s smart.

In short, less flu is good. It’s good on its own merits — flu kills hundreds of Ontarians in a typical year — but it’s especially good in the context of the pandemic. And it’s extra good that the government seems to have given some thought to how best to get the vaccine out to Ontarians, particularly those in hospitals, long-term-care facilities, and retirement homes.

The fact that the first announcement about our COVID-19 plan was all about the flu may admittedly seem strange. With case counts rising fast, the public wants information about the pandemic. That’s natural. But the Ontario government isn’t wrong to make an aggressive campaign against the flu a central part of the plan. If our goal is protecting the health-care system, which it ought to be, and if COVID-19 cases are surging, which they clearly are, we may have to do addition by subtraction: every missed flu is a case of COVID-19 Ontario will be better able to test, trace, and treat.

We’ll have to wait and see whether the rest of the plan is any good. But the first pillar represents a surprising but solid opening move.

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