Transcript: Ep. 107 - Ontario schools move online | Apr 13, 2021

STEVE:
Welcome, everyone,
to the OnPoli Podcast.
I'm Steve Paikin.
JOHN MICHAEL:
And I'm John Michael McGrath.
STEVE:
Well, here we are again.
Ontario is in its
third state of emergency
because
of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nearly half of the province's
public health units
have posted
record numbers of cases
since the beginning of April.
Case numbers are now
topping 4,000 a day.
And the province is now saying
schools will remain closed
beyond this week's school break.
We'll get to these
and other issues
on this Tuesday,
April 13th, 2021.
So let's get to it.

STEVE:
Well, Premier Doug Ford has
announced they are moving
all schooling to online only
after the April break
wraps up this week.
And JMM, I guess
this is another indication
of just how quickly
this story is moving.
It was just last week
that the government said
they wanted
to do everything they could
to keep schools open
and kids in the classroom.
And yesterday's developments
suggest
that just wasn't possible.
JOHN MICHAEL:
I mean, forget last week.
Literally 24 hours before
the Premier's
statement on Monday,
the Minister of Education
Stephen Lecce's office,
published a letter to parents
saying that
the government planned
to keep schools open.
Just a real remarkable series
of reversals for the government
over the last 10 days or so.
And, you know, the Premier
said to reporters on Monday
that, you know, the government
has had to react quickly
to events in real time
with fast-spreading
variants of concern
across the province.
You know, that said,
I think there's
a fair amount of skepticism,
at least certainly
from the press core on Monday,
and, you know,
from opposition parties
about why the Premier
and his Cabinet
made this change
now and not earlier
and why they didn't communicate
it to parents earlier.
STEVE:
Yeah, that certainly was
the gist of all the questioning
in the Premier's news conference
on Monday afternoon.
Let me just pick up on
a slightly different angle
from this though,
because in the past,
the province has provided
emergency childcare
for those
who can't work from home.
Obviously with all the kids home
this week for March break,
and then
for who knows how much longer,
they didn't put any date
on when they estimate
kids will get back
to the classroom.
Is that gonna happen again?
That emergency childcare.
JOHN MICHAEL:
The government did say that
the emergency childcare programs
that they have operated
for frontline workers
in previous
waves of the pandemic
is going to be restarted.
And, it's important,
I think also,
to say that the slight wrinkle
to this school closure,
relative to
previous school closures,
is that childcare will
be allowed to stay open
for children
who are not school aged.
So, you know,
basically, you know,
three and under,
I guess you could say fairly.
It's just that those daycares
will not be allowed to offer
before or after school care,
or all day care certainly,
for school-aged children.
That's not going to be allowed
during this school closure.
Another thing we should say
about this announcement
that is notable for its absence,
I guess, is that the...
You know,
this government loves to give
time-limited announcements.
Like, the stay at home order,
for example,
is a 28 day stay at home order.
Um, there is no timeframe
to this school closure.
It is...
The government is saying that
they are gonna be monitoring
various
public health indicators.
So one could
imagine things like case counts
and positivity rates in testing,
and all sorts of indicators
that they will be looking at,
but they didn't spell out
what those indicators will be
and what the thresholds will be
to re-open schools.
For now,
parents are very much stuck
in the land of "stay tuned."
STEVE:
Hm, let me put something to you.
And you...
Frankly, I don't know
whether this is important
or it isn't.
But it's something of interest
and maybe we should just
get it on the record anyway.
And that is, when they made
their announcement to say
that the schools
are gonna remain closed,
both the Premier, and
his Minister of Education,
Stephen Lecce, took pains
to point out that 99 percent
of the schools
and the kids in this province
were essentially safe.
That, yes,
there are outbreaks in schools,
but it's only in one percent.
And they said we need to keep
the kids out of the schools
because they're picking up
COVID-19 in the community
and then bringing
it to the schools,
not the other way around.
So they're making the point
that in spite
of everything you've heard,
schools in this province
are essentially safe.
Now, I guess two things.
Number one, do we buy that?
And number two,
is that important?
JOHN MICHAEL:
I mean, it's important
and it's worth saying that,
um, even if you do not share
the government's rosy assessment
of safety in schools,
I think one thing that
is uncontroversial is that
it is best for kids' mental
health and their physical health
if they can be in school.
And so, um,
I don't wanna endorse the idea
of a noble lie or something,
but I don't think
the government was simply
wearing rose-tinted glasses
on the issue of school safety.
You know,
there are lots of advisors,
not all of whom
are paid by the government
who were telling them to keep
schools as open as they could
as long as they could.
The question, "Do I buy it?"
I mean, you can look at these
numbers any number of ways.
95 percent of Ontarians
haven't had COVID yet.
I haven't felt particularly
safe all year though.
Um, so, you know, it's, um--
(Sighing)
I don't know.
I could tell you anecdotally.
And obviously, you know,
reporters should be
careful about anecdotes.
And I wouldn't
want this to sound like
definitive evidence of anything.
But, at my kid's school,
a lot of parents started pulling
their kids out before last week,
before they were forced to by
a Toronto public health order.
Um, you know, and we saw this
at the beginning
of the pandemic, right?
People stopped
going to work long before--
Sorry, they stopped
going to the office to work
long before government orders
forced them to, right?
People were feeling the anxiety
about safety in schools
well before this.
STEVE:
Yeah, and we got an E-mail.
I guess, when was it?
Yesterday from--
I got a daughter who's in grade
12 at a public high school.
And we got an E-mail
from the school saying,
"Hello, we got a positive test
case from a grade 12 kid
in your high school."
So, now, of course,
they never identify who it is,
or, you know, whether it's
in your half of the grade 12,
or the other half
of the grade 12, or...
They don't.
But, um, yeah,
here we go again, right?
Now, should any of this come
as a surprise to anybody?
JOHN MICHAEL:
(Laughing)
I mean, there's two sides
to that question, right?
For parents, I think this
could fairly be surprising.
As much as I was
just saying that, you know,
I saw that a lot of people
were pulling
their kids out of school.
If you were listening
to the government, then, yes,
this should be surprising.
Because
the government was saying
literally just 24 hours before
that they were
gonna keep schools open.
Um, for the government
should this be surprising?
(Sighing)
We're not entirely
in uncharted territory here.
Um, you know, people have made
the point about the modelling
and what the modelling
showed even months ago.
But, even if you threw all
the modelling out the window,
you could've just looked at
where the case counts have been
for the last two weeks.
And, that should have made,
I think, the government
a lot more circumspect
about what
it was telling parents.
STEVE:
Now, as I indicated
just a moment ago,
the Premier's not
blaming the school system.
He's saying there's just too
much community spread happening
and students will
pick it up in the community
and take it into their schools.
So perhaps we should
just do a word here
on community spread itself
and where we're at on that.
What can you tell us?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Uh, well--
(Laughing)
Appropriately, I guess, given
everything that has come before,
the community spread is bad.
As of Monday morning,
the province reported
its second highest level
of daily COVID cases ever.
And it would
have been the highest,
except that an even higher
number was reported on Sunday.
ICU's are so stretched right now
that hospitals have started
cancelling elective procedures.
And, listeners
who have been with us
since the start of the pandemic
will remember
that just because a procedure
is quote unquote elective
doesn't mean it's not important.
That category
includes many, many things,
you know, except for the most
urgent and necessary surgeries.
Really, I mean, one way to
think of where we are right now
is that a lot of the stuff
that we were worried about
in the first wave,
including, you know,
infections
running out of control
and ICU's being overloaded,
um, some of these things that
didn't happen in the first wave,
or that we managed to keep
a lid on in the second wave
are really hitting us now.
And, you know--
(Laughing)
I don't know if our listeners
are the kind of people
who have sort of
breezed through the pandemic
without a care in the world,
but it is, um, it's
a really scary time right now.
STEVE:
I just remember
last summer, JMM.
We were down
to fewer than 200 cases a day
for a good stretch of time.
And now we're over 4,000 a day.
Who would've thought that
the middle of last summer
we'd be calling those
the good old days
even though we were in
the middle of a global pandemic?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Oh, I know.
It is so weird
that I can't even...
I can't even be nostalgic
for the pre-pandemic period
because I almost
don't remember what that's like.
At this point, I'm just
nostalgic for the pandemic,
but I could at least
go to a patio.
(Both laughing)
STEVE:
Now, we know the United States
has seen many times more
casualties than we have,
not just the total number,
but per capita as well.
But they have also vaccinated a
significantly higher percentage
of their population again,
per capita than we have.
So let's compare and contrast.
Where are we
right now in Ontario
in terms of getting
jabs into arms?
JOHN MICHAEL:
In terms of the raw number of
vaccines going out last week,
there were some very good days.
The province administered more
than 100,000 doses per day
for four days running actually.
And they just missed
that number on the fifth.
I think it was about 94,
95,000, that kind of a thing.
But of course,
that's not the whole story.
Just getting the doses out,
getting those numbers up,
is not the whole story
of what we are trying to do.
In the middle of the week,
Premier Ford
held a press conference
where he announced, really,
a new focus on vaccinating
essential workers
in the hardest hit postal codes
around the province.
Those postal codes are largely,
but not entirely, in the GTA.
There are also some in
the southwest, some in Ottawa.
The prior plan
had also included language
about vaccinating
essential workers.
But, everything that
the Premier has said,
and everything that's
come out of the government
in the last few days
really has emphasized
that this is going to be
a much bigger focus
on essential workers.
And we're already starting
to see that play out with,
you know,
in Toronto for example,
public health teams
going to apartment buildings
in the hardest hit postal codes
and vaccinating anybody
over the age of 18.
Because, of course, these
vaccines are not all approved
for people, uh....
Well, at the moment I don't
believe we're using any of them
for people under the age of 18.
STEVE:
Right, but this does raise
a bit of a tricky question here.
And this question has come up
a lot over the past week.
The notion of fairness.
Because we are now vaccinating,
as you've just indicated,
in part by postal code.
And therefore, there are
going to be some younger,
maybe less at-risk people
that are going to be vaccinated,
before some older,
more at-risk people
not in those postal codes,
will be getting their vaccines.
So, I mean, this is the pivot.
This is the new way
of doing things,
because they wanna focus on some
of the priority neighbourhoods.
Having said that,
how is the province
justifying this move?
JOHN MICHAEL:
You know, I think there's
an important difference
between the word "unvaccinated"
and the word
"unprotected," right?
We are not protecting
the elderly of this province,
or even of the GTA, if we let
the pandemic rage out of control
in Peel region
and northwest Toronto.
Um, people who have not
gotten their shot yet
will still be better protected
if we manage to bring
the spread of this virus down.
And vaccines
are one way to do that
with public health measures.
The province's science table,
this committee of scientific
advisors to the government,
estimate that focusing our
efforts on age and postal code,
instead of just
vaccinating by age cohorts
could avoid a substantial
number of hospitalizations,
and infections and deaths.
Ideally, of course, we wouldn't
have to make that choice.
We would have
enough vaccines on hand
to give everyone in the province
their first shot tomorrow
and then their second
only a few weeks later.
But we don't have
that kind of vaccine abundance.
Everything
we are doing right now,
including stretching out doses
by as much as four months
is about trying
to find the best way forward
in the context of
not having enough vaccines.
The US, for example,
is in a very different
situation than us.
And they are making
different choices.
People are not waiting
16 weeks to get their shots.
STEVE:
Well, they're making
different choices
when it comes to baseball too,
which I keep my eye on
very carefully.
I just saw,
I guess, where was it?
Atlanta last night.
Atlanta,
and then Texas before them.
40,000 people at the ballpark
to watch a baseball game.
Not much physical
distancing going on there.
They're clearly making
different choices than we are.
But, as long as
we're on the case of the US,
is it possible for Canada
to get leftover vaccines
from the United States?
JOHN MICHAEL:
Uh, you know, on Twitter,
I guess it was last week,
I made the comparison to Canada
once again finding ourselves
in a moment in world history
where we're waiting on
the Americans
to come to our rescue.
(Both laughing)
JOHN MICHAEL:
Um, and, you know,
it's sort of where we are.
The Americans have banned the
export of vaccine doses formally
and they are going
to have this enormous amount
of vaccine production to, you
know, release into the world
once they have finished
vaccinating their population,
but we're not there yet.
That said, they have actually
still provided us some vaccines
and there's more that they might
be be able to do in the future.
You know, here in Ontario,
we have already administered
AstraZeneca vaccine doses
that were provided
to us by the Americans
because AstraZeneca's supply
is building up,
is being stockpiled in the US.
But the American food
and drug regulator, the FDA,
hasn't approved AstraZeneca
for use in that country yet.
So, I saw a report last week
saying that the US is sitting on
20 million doses
that they can't use yet.
So we might get access to that,
but there's a catch,
at least
in the Canadian context.
Because AstraZeneca
is only recommended
for people over 55 in Canada,
and certainly in Ontario.
But if you look at the numbers
that we've already done,
more than half of
all Ontarians over the age of 55
have actually
been vaccinated by now.
So, we might get access
to the AstraZeneca stockpile
that the Americans
have built up,
but, we then would need to
figure out how many people here
can actually use it,
and whether we want to change
some of our decisions
about potentially
letting younger people
make use
of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
STEVE:
Mm-hm, now, I think everybody
can appreciate the fact
that Premier Doug Ford is trying
to paint as optimistic a picture
as he can about all of this.
We saw him at his news
conferences both yesterday
and then again last week,
where he's trying to say,
"We just gotta hang in there
a little bit longer.
The news is gonna get better.
We're gonna get through this."
You know, there's a certain
amount of that theatre
that politicians
are expected to do
in order to try
to keep morale up.
However, how's it playing?
Well, a year ago, 78 percent
of Ontarians thought Ford
was doing a good job
handling the pandemic.
Last November, that number
dropped to 55 percent.
Today, that number
sits at 32 percent,
a 32 percent
favourability rating,
all those numbers courtesy
the Angus Reid Organization.
And that, incidentally,
is the second worst number
in the entire country,
only ahead
of Alberta's Jason Kenney,
who is at 23 percent today.
So, again,
78 percent a year ago,
then 55 percent, and now 32
percent for Premier Doug Ford.
Go ahead, JMM.
Do the deeper dive and
what else do you come up with?
JOHN MICHAEL:
You know, it is, um...
It's fascinating how divergent
the results are by province.
Uh, Premier
François Legault in Québec
has just had just
incredibly rock solid approval
in that province.
He was at
66 percent in November.
He's now at 63 percent.
It might as well have not moved.
The Atlantic Premiers,
understandably,
get really high approval
for their job performance
in the pandemic.
And in BC, where, I think
certainly in the first wave
there was a memory of BC being
relatively lightly touched
by the pandemic,
but now they are in
a third wave that is, you know,
at least as severe as Ontario's.
Premier John Horgan
in BC is still polling
at 55 percent approval.
You know, more than, well,
more than 20 points
ahead of Premier Ford.
So,
huge divergences
among the provinces.
And, we don't always get
a clear picture in these polls
of why voters are saying,
you know, "approve,"
versus "disapprove,"
or "vote for the party" versus
"vote for a different party."
In this one, we do get
some sense of why voters
are down on their Premiers,
where they are down on them.
And in short, it does seem
like a lot of respondents
to the Angus Reid poll are just,
um, losing their patience,
or losing their trust
in how the provinces
are handling the pandemic.
You know, in Ontario, 61 percent
of respondents told Angus Reid
that the current public health
measures didn't go far enough
to contain the pandemic.
And that was a survey that was
taken at least partly before
the current
stay at home order was issued.
So, you know, for at least
in the Ontario context,
a lot of voters simply didn't
believe that the government
was on top of the ball in terms
of containing the pandemic.
STEVE:
Right, now those numbers
look pretty grim for Doug Ford,
but let's also remind everybody
that it was only a week ago
that we were discussing the fact
that the three most recent
party polls on the popularity
of the, you know, Progressive
Conservatives, New Democrats,
Liberals, and Greens
had the Conservatives in first
place in all three polls.
So, you know, ask the question,
"How well is Doug Ford
managing this pandemic?"
Not very good results.
"Who would you vote for
if an election were held today?"
Pretty good results
if you're the Tories.
So, obviously
it very much depends
on what question you ask.
Let's--
JOHN MICHAEL:
Right, and can I also--
STEVE:
Yeah, sure, jump in.
JOHN MICHAEL:
I'll just say, you know, I think
one thing to keep an eye on is,
um,
these questions in
the Angus Reid poll,
you know, they might not change
the fundamental election,
the ballot question
in the next poll,
or the next
several polls, right?
What I'll be trying to look for,
and it may not simply
be in any of the polls,
and you just may
not see it at all,
is whether any of the support
for the second parties shifts,
whether we start to see voters
get so angry with Doug Ford,
for example, that Liberal voters
move to the New Democrats,
or the new Democrats move
to the Liberal column.
That's one thing
that I will be looking for.
As I say, you may not see it
because polls
can be noisy and messy.
But, um, you know,
if I were a Tory,
I would not
be betting that much money
on the healthy results
they have had in recent polls
standing up to, I think,
a real anger that is out there
over the third wave.
STEVE:
Yeah, absolutely.
And a couple of more points
I think need to be made here.
Number one, where they are
in the polls today...
I mean, let's face it.
The election's 15 months away.
So no one's
gonna get too excited
about this kind of stuff.
Or at least
they shouldn't anyway.
And number two is, you
may not be happy with the way
Doug Ford and his party
is leading the show,
but that
doesn't necessarily mean
that you think you have any more
confidence in the other guys
to do any better.
STEVE:
So, you know, this all has
to percolate its way through
over the course
of the next year and change.
And obviously we'll keep
a bit of an eye on it.
Let's also note that Angus Reid
looked at attitudes
around vaccines in general,
also, rather specifically
at AstraZeneca.
And they found that only
41 percent of Canadians
who are unvaccinated are
comfortable with receiving
the AstraZeneca vaccine.
23 percent of those
were uncomfortable.
Say they would reject
the AZ vaccine completely.
Now, that's interesting, 'cause
Doug Ford and Christine Elliott,
the Health Minister, have both
done photo ops at pharmacies
where they got the AZ vaccine.
Is there anything else
that the government,
you think, could be doing
to rehabilitate
AstraZeneca's reputation here?
JOHN MICHAEL:
I mean, you know,
I'm not a marketing expert.
But, the first thing
they need to do
is actually establish whether
they're going to approve it
for people under 55
in some way or not.
And that's a decision
that isn't actually
in the provincial
government's hands.
That's gonna be a decision
that's made by Health Canada
and the...
Gosh, I always forget
their full name.
The National Advisory Council
on Immunization, I think.
STEVE:
NACI, N-A-C-I.
JOHN MICHAEL:
NACI, yes.
Um, you know,
'cause I think at the moment,
you've got this situation
where people over 55
are being told that
there is this vaccine that
is not safe for people under 55,
and specifically for...
The highest risks are
for women between 40 and 55.
And, if you are over 55,
I could see that information
causing you a lot of doubt.
Like,
"How is it possibly safe for me,
but not safe for somebody
15 or 20 years my junior?"
Right?
I think we're probably
gonna resolve these questions.
And,
with a bit more information,
and a bit more data,
AstraZeneca is going to
get cleared for younger people,
at least in most situations.
There'll be
some kind of screening
that we start implementing
to screen out
the highest risk people.
But you know, I think that
where we are
in the pandemic right now,
a lot of people simply will
never trust the AstraZeneca shot
as much as they trust
the Pfizer or Moderna ones.
But, I mean,
I don't know what else to do.
STEVE:
Well, can I ask you
the direct question?
Have you been vaccinated yet?
JOHN MICHAEL:
I have not been.
I'm not eligible yet.
STEVE:
You're not eligible yet,
because you're, God bless you,
you're under 55 and adorable.
JOHN MICHAEL:
I am.
(Laughing)
STEVE:
Let me ask you directly.
Would you take the AstraZeneca
vaccine if it were offered?
JOHN MICHAEL:
I would.
Um, you know, this is
a big, complicated question
for every individual
and I'm not going to pretend
to give medical advice
to our listeners.
It would be grossly
irresponsible for me to do that.
Um, but, we know that
the pandemic comes
to an end sooner
when everyone gets a vaccine
as soon as they can.
And, I think what I can say for
myself is that I don't think
I'm in a particularly high-risk
group for the complications
that officials and doctors
have been talking about.
And, if they clear people 40
and over to take the AZ shot,
I am in that group,
and I will go wherever
they tell me to to get it.
STEVE:
You may not be a medical expert,
but I did interview,
yesterday on
The Agenda,
three vaccine experts,
who told me they actually don't
take their cues
from John Michael McGrath
on how to advise the population.
But to a person,
they all said "Yes,
there is a risk
in taking the AZ vaccine,
but that there is
a substantially greater risk
in going unvaccinated and
being inadequately protected
from COVID-19 and
the variants of concern."
So their advice to a person was,
"When you compare
those two risks..."
And everything we do
in life is a risk.
You walk out your front door
you're taking a risk.
"But when you compare those
two risks it makes sense.
The math suggests that
it is less risky to take AZ
and be vaccinated against
COVID-19 than hold out
for something else and be
unprotected, unvaccinated,
for whatever period of time
you plan to wait for."
So that was their advice.
And unlike John Michael McGrath,
they don't
just play doctors on podcasts.
They really are doctors.
So there you go.
STEVE:
Now, we always
conclude this podcast
with our favourite
quotes of the week.
And we'll have those for you
immediately after we ask you
to give us a rating
on Apple Podcasts.
Get on there, figure it out,
let us know what you liked
and what you didn't and
help make this podcast
a little bit better.
Here's one
from someone who wrote
"I wish it was
more frequently."
(Laughing)
That's nice to hear.
For those of you who
have been with us for a year,
you'll remember we did switch to
a daily format for a few months,
but now
we are sticking to weekly.
So, I'm afraid you'll only
have Mr. McGrath and I
to kick around
for one day a week.
JOHN MICHAEL:
I suspect that
our schedule might get revised
when we get closer
to the election,
but that is something
for the whole team to discuss.
And I'm not
gonna drag people into that
in the middle of a recording.
A reminder.
If you wanna get in touch,
you can also shoot us
an E-mail at onpolitics@tvo.org.
STEVE:
Here now,
is my quote of the week.
And this goes back to yesterday
afternoon's news conference
by Premier Ford, on the issue
of keeping schools closed
after the March break,
which is now, of course,
called the April break, is over.
Here's the Premier.
DOUG FORD:
And bringing our kids back to
a congregate setting in school
after a week off
in the community
is a risk that I won't take.
Because we know that
the more COVID
spreads in our communities,
the more likely it is
to get into the schools.
And that would create
massive problems for all of us
down the road.
STEVE:
Doug Ford, who says
he'd love nothing more
than to have the kids
back in the classroom,
but not until
it's safer to do so.
JOHN MICHAEL:
And my quote of the week
is from Toronto's
Medical Officer of Health,
Dr. Eileen de Villa, who briefed
the city's Board of Health
on what the next few weeks
of the pandemic look like from
the Toronto-focused perspective.
So obviously,
the numbers in this quote
don't reflect
the entire province,
but I think it gives
a sense of how things look
in one
of the province's hotspots.
Here's Dr. de Villa.
EILEEN DE VILLA:
You can see that even if we are
able to decrease transmission
by 10 percent,
we can expect to see similar,
you know, a high level of
a daily number
of people in hospital,
in fact, commensurate with what
we saw at the week of wave two,
which is around 765 daily cases.
And we can expect
to hit that at about mid May.
So, all together,
this says that right now,
what we can anticipate
is that this third wave
is likely going to be the worst
that we have seen thus far
over the course of the pandemic.
JOHN MICHAEL:
And that was Eileen de Villa,
the city of Toronto's
Medical Officer of Health,
on Monday.
STEVE:
And, that was episode 107
of the OnPoli Podcast.
It was produced
by Katie O'Connor,
with editing from
Matthew O'Mara,
production support
from Nikki Ashworth
and Jonathan Halliwell.
JMM, as my dad likes to say,
"Stay positive.
Test negative."
JOHN MICHAEL:
Stay safe, Steve.

Watch: Ep. 107 - Ontario schools move online