Ready for action: gym space at Pelham's community centre set up for Covid-19 jabs in April 2021. SUPPLIED

Ontario Medical Association endorses back-to-school and return-to-office vaccinations

Ontario is facing a double-whammy this fall, with a simultaneous regular flu season and Covid-19 for the first time since the pandemic hit. Doctors are stressing the need to keep current on vaccinations for both.

Stuck in the seventh wave of the pandemic, Ontario’s healthcare system is in crisis, according to the Ontario Medical Association (OMA), which broadcast a recent Zoom news conference entitled Ask Ontario Doctors: Living with Covid-19, featuring a panel of medical experts. Issues covered included the Covid-19 outlook for the fall and winter, why Ontario may be in for a bad flu season, the need to catch up on missed routine immunizations for children to avoid a re-emergence of eradicated diseases, and the ability of hospitals and emergency departments to handle a potential increase in Covid-19 cases in the coming months.

OMA President Dr. Rose Zacharias. SUPPLIED

OMA represents Ontario’s 43,000 physicians, medical students, and retired physicians, to advocate for and support the medical community.

The briefing was chaired by OMA President Dr. Rose Zacharias. Panelists included Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, who heads a pilot program for outpatients with Covid-19 who are at risk of becoming seriously ill; Dr. Sloane Freeman, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital and an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto; and Dr. Andrew Petrosoniak, an emergency physician and trauma team leader at St. Michael’s Hospital, and an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Chagla said that countries in the southern hemisphere that had little flu during the pandemic, had a short but intense flu season this year.

“Australia is often our canary in the coal mine of what’s going to happen here,” he said, predicting that Ontario will also see more influenza this year because of international travel.

Ontario has one of the highest Covid-19 vaccination rates in the world, with 85 percent of the eligible population having received at least one dose. For children ages 5 to 11, that number is only about 53 percent, according to Public Health Ontario.

Dr. Freeman emphasized the need to have children vaccinated, especially high-risk kids living in relative poverty. She noted that one in four Canadian children are also behind in routine childhood immunizations, allowing the possible re-emergence of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as polio, that otherwise would never pose a health risk.

“Before the pandemic, 60 to 80 percent of children in Grade 7 were receiving vaccinations,” said Freeman. “These rates have plummeted below 20 percent.”

Dr. Petrosoniak said that Ontario should prepare for more hospitalizations for respiratory illnesses, which tend to rise in the fall and winter. He gave a “straight up prediction that there’s about a 99 percent chance that emergency departments in Ontario will be worse in the fall,” and said that even a small rise in patient volumes would be difficult to manage due to staffing shortages.

There’s about a 99 percent chance that emergency departments in Ontario will be worse in the fall

Dr. Zacharias stressed that urgent action is needed now, and indicated that Ontario’s doctors are ready to work with Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones to solve the big challenges facing the healthcare system. Zacharias said that the OMA has practical solutions to tackle many of the system-wide issues. Long wait times, a shortage of physicians, a lack of long-term and community care beds, and escalating mental health cases were all addressed in an OMA 2021 document entitled Prescription for Ontario: Doctors’ 5-Point Plan for Better Health.

OMA supports the government making it easier for foreign-trained physicians and nurses to get licenses to practice in Ontario, and reducing the administrative burden on physicians, identified as the leading contributor to doctor burnout. OMA also suggests the creation of independent ambulatory centres to perform less complex outpatient surgeries and procedures, which would free-up beds and other resources in acute care hospitals, thus reducing wait times.

“We know that there will be additional challenges as we move into the fall and spend more time indoors where viruses are more easily spread,” said Zacharias. “I think you have heard loud and clear from all of us on our perspectives of the healthcare system. We’re in this together.”