What exactly is Ontario’s exit plan?

OPINION: A few months ago, the answer seemed clear: vaccines. Now we have vaccines. Yet here we are again
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jan 10, 2022
As of January 9, Ontario had administered 93,741 new doses of COVID-19 vaccines. (Zou Zheng/Xinhua via ZUMA Press)

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The current restrictions Ontarians are living under are justified, the government says, by the pressure on the health-care system. The pressure is real, and it is rising. Nothing that follows in this column should be interpreted as a denial of the challenge we are facing. Indeed, I’d go one further — Omicron’s infectivity is so astonishing that we can expect to see sizeable and unpredictable disruptions to staffing and service availability across the province. We can and should all hope that the disruptions are minor, but they may not be. We’ll find out.

So, yeah, Omicron, despite seemingly being a milder variant, is a real challenge. That’s granted. But what I’m wondering is, what’s our exit plan? What’s the plan to get back to life as it was before the pandemic began in 2020? This isn’t a demand or a lament — it’s a question. Does Ontario have a plan to put this pandemic behind us? 

A few months ago, the answer would have been clear: the plan was vaccines. But we have vaccines. And Ontarians have taken them up on a massive scale — our vaccine rates are about as high as any of us really had any reason to ever hope they would be. They can be higher. I’m open to ideas on how to continue getting them higher (and they’ll continue to rise as newly eligible children continue to get their shots, so some future rise in the overall coverage rate can be safely assumed). But though I grant that we can do better (and will), the bulk of the work is behind us. We are in a fantastically improved situation vaccine-wise than we were a year ago. It’s an enormous achievement that, in typical Canadian fashion, we just instantly took for granted.

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So. Vaccines were the plan. We have vaccines. We’ve deployed vaccines on a massive scale. And here we are again. Restaurants and gyms closed. Sports programs idled. Schools closed. Normal life and economic activity disrupted.

There is no advantage in being defeatist or falling into a funk. COVID-19 has consistently proven a more challenging, more adaptable threat than most of us expected (and obviously way more than any of us hoped). As the facts change, our plans have to change, too. We won’t get our vaccine coverage much higher than it is now, in the grand scheme — it was over 87 per cent of all eligible Ontarians as of last week, and it’ll go a bit higher as more kids get the jab, but peaking in the low-90s seems inevitable. And that’s amazing. That’s fantastic. And it also seems to be not good enough.

The problem, as you’ve probably noticed, is the health-care system, which is so small that it has limited ability to respond to crises. It isn’t quite a single point of failure — alas, we do not have the luxury of having only a single thing to worry about! But the health-care system is, if nothing else, the primary point of failure in Ontario now. It was small before the pandemic. Far too small (and this was publicly known, but no one cared enough to do much about it). And as health-care professionals and administrators keep warning us, whatever the system’s nominal capacity is, exhausted staff and staff absent due to Omicron exposures are meaningfully eroding the actual capacity. And when the Omicron surge passes, it will take months of rest and recovery just to get the system back up to where it already is on paper. Only then can any work be done to increase the system’s capacity and make it more resilient. 

And this is where we circle back to the question I asked above: So what’s the plan? Because if vaccines aren’t enough to protect the health-care system during surges, and if the health-care system won’t be in better shape for months or years ... well, think that one out, folks. 

Lest my comments above be misconstrued or deliberately torqued, let me be explicit: the vaccines are astonishingly successful at protecting people from serious illness at the individual level. They are not magic, and nothing in life is 100 per cent effective, but someone who has two (or more) shots of one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines in Canada has reduced their risk of serious illness or death by a massive amount (even if that risk was already low, as it generally is for younger age groups). The vaccines are modern-day miracles, and choosing not to take one at this point ... I don’t even know how to end that sentence. None of the words that want to spill out of me are publishable here.

But the efficacy of these wonder drugs doesn’t change the fact that Ontario’s health-care system is easily overwhelmed. It’s true that Omicron has swamped systems in other jurisdictions, including some outside Canada. But that simply means that, if misery loves company, Ontario is much blessed. The problem here isn’t that Ontario’s system can be swamped; it’s that it gets swamped quickly. And we can’t do much about that in a reasonable time-frame. We are already robbing Peter to pay Paul — hospitals and long-term-care homes have added staff, but since there’s only a finite pool, that has stripped community care of personnel. Vaccination campaigns do likewise. We have too few people and can only shuffle them around from place to place for so long before something (or all of it) breaks.

So what’s the plan? Perhaps we’ll get lucky; Omicron may be the last major wave of COVID-19. That would be amazing. But luck isn’t a plan, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but after two years of this, I’m not feeling particularly lucky. If there are future waves, do we have a plan to do anything other than what we’re doing now — anything other than shutting parts of society down? The health-care system is our Achilles’ heel, and it’s not one we can fix in short order. So when this surge passes, we’re going to do ... what? If another one comes, is it just this all over again? Is this the best Ontario can do?

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