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Ontario doctors speak up about the need to plan and prepare for future pandemics

Docs say province needs better responses for creating vaccines and preparing for the health impacts of climate change
160322_LG_Preparing for pandemic Sized

Ontario doctors are saying more needs to be done to prepare the province for the next pandemic, and that could mean voting for candidates who are willing to spend more money on health care and public health planning.

Those were some of the opinions outlined Wednesday when the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) held a Zoom webinar to discuss ways Ontario might want to be better prepared for the next time our public health system is threatened by a major medical outbreak.

OMA president Dr. Adam Kassam said in the past two years, COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 12,000 Ontario residents and nearly 37,000 residents across Canada. 

"While the pandemic is not behind us, it seems that we are arriving at a place where we can manage the virus without overburdening our hospitals. And we've learned the importance in public health for being ready for future challenges. COVID-19 wasn't our first pandemic and it won't be the last public health crisis experienced around the world," said Kassam. 

Dr. Jen Gommerman, a professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto, said the vaccination process in the past year or so has taught the medical community a lot as the original coronavirus from Wuhan, China has kept changing. 

Gommerman said the vaccines have been useful in creating the antibodies that stop the virus from creating severe medical reactions. She said the third shot in the vaccine process seems to be the "sweet spot" that provides enough protection to keep any new variants from creating serious sickness.  

Gommerman said it is time to generate a new level of vaccines for the future.

"I think for future pandemics, what we really need to do is think about second generation vaccines that provide protection within the nose and the mouth, which is where we encounter the virus. And so these would be in the form of a nasal and intranasal boost, not an intranasal vaccine, but an intranasal boost, that builds on immunity that you get from the shot in the arm, and trains the immune system to go to that location, so that it's ready," she said.

Gommerman said it is important to keep the medical networks in place that were created to bring scientists and frontline health workers together to fight the pandemic. 

"I would like to see academics like myself work more closely with some of the public health agencies so we can sequence and identify variants before they hit us," she said.

In pressing her point, Gommerman used a familiar hockey reference. 

"So it's kind of like the Wayne Gretzky metaphor of not knowing where the puck is, but knowing where the puck is really going, to be important moving forward, and that's going to take some co-ordination," she said.

Co-ordination is something Canada needs to look at doing on a global scale, said another speaker at the online event. 

Dr. Ross Upshur wears many research hats, one of them being Division Head of Clinical Public Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

He said if Canada is going to have a better pandemic response in the future, then it must recognize that pandemics are global events requiring the best response from all countries.

"So what can we do? Well, we have huge intellectual capacity and ability in the scientific and clinical communities that we have here in Canada, and we can start to, you know, enhance capacity to produce vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics that support regional networks, globally," Upshur said.

He added that Canada should find ways to produce and distribute low-cost vaccines on a global level as part of Canada striving to be a global leader in pandemic response.

It was later in the webinar that Upshur was asked what Canadians can do as individuals to fight a pandemic.

"I think what individuals can do is exercise their democratic franchise to vote for candidates and governments that support robust public health and pandemic preparedness," Upshur responded. He added there is not a lot that ordinary individuals can do on a global level but it helps to promote responsible governments that are committed to public health. 

Also taking part in the discussion was family physician Dr. Samantha Green, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Toronto and faculty lead in climate change and Health in the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

She spoke of the environmental danger that climate change presents to human health. 

"Even as we continue to experience morbidity, mortality and health system threats from the COVID 19 pandemic, the climate crisis remains the bigger threat," Green told the news conference.

She recounted that in the past year, a heat dome in British Columbia contributed to hundreds of deaths, entire communities were engulfed in wildfires, there were crop failures in Manitoba, there was flooding in BC and Newfoundland and more wildfires in Northern Ontario that created a smokey haze in downtown Toronto.

Green said Canadians will need emergency planning to deal with health harms caused by environmental disruptions and also by preparing our health system for such disruptions.

"And then finally, physicians can reduce the health harms of the climate emergency through leadership and advocacy," Green said.  

She added that one of the key targets right now is public education about the long term harmful health effects of climate change.  

"We also need to tackle misinformation about climate change, and really institute a broad public education campaign that tells the truth about the health impacts of the climate crisis, in order to convince our society that we really need to take transformative action right now," Green said. 

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com. He covers health care in Northern Ontario.