Coronavirus: Top Ontario doctors describe challenges of advising government about pandemic health measures

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Coronavirus: Top Ontario doctors describe challenges of advising government about pandemic health measures
Coronavirus: Top Ontario doctors describe challenges of advising government about pandemic health measures

There is a sense of relief this week as Canada’s two most populous provinces — Ontario and Quebec — announced gradual and cautious plans to reopen. But the road to get here has been difficult, in particular for Ontario where COVID-19’s third wave dealt a crushing blow to its health care system, which has seen the most cases to date of any region in the country.

Throughout the pandemic the Ontario government has relied on the expertise of doctors, scientists and researchers, many of whom pointed months ago to the dangers of new variants and the potential for a devastating third wave. Ontario’s health crisis was very much predicted.

The National’s Andrew Chang spoke with four doctors who have played a significant role in advising Ontario’s government on the spread of the virus and the dangers ahead. They shared their views on the challenge of delivering the facts about the pandemic’s projected path, and yet knowing the decisions about provincial public health measures are ultimately not theirs to make.

Dr. Adalsteinn Brown is co-chair of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, and he is the data-modeller and main point of contact regarding COVID-19 projections for the provincial government. His news conferences, held regularly at Toronto’s Queen’s Park, have become a touchstone of clarity regarding how the virus is moving through the province.

Some of Brown’s colleagues have expressed admiration

for how he navigates his relationship with government, putting forward the science but leaving elected officials to manage their response.

“Look, government has to consider a lot of things, not just the science,” Brown told The National. “You really wouldn’t want a world run by scientists. You want people who really reflect the communities that elect them. But we try to bring the evidence forward as strongly, as clearly, as we can.”

Earlier this year, Brown’s modeling showed that if Ontario crossed the red line of 800 patients in intensive care then people would die, whether through a lack of beds or medical staff to care for them. In the weeks that followed, Ontario would reach 900 patients in its ICUs.

Asked whether crossing that threshold suggests an abject failure in terms of provincial pandemic measures, Brown concedes that, “I believe we could have done more to prevent the spread…. And I think, you know, at a time when we’re still probably learning about the disease, more stronger action at that point would have probably reduced the impact of the disease. What we’ve really got to do is get it under control and bring it down to a level that we can actually keep the health system running.”

As for the government’s part in deciding against stronger public health measures earlier in the year, Brown believes it faced a difficult choice.

“There’s a short-term and there’s a long-term on this, right? And it’s my belief that the faster we get it under control, [then] the faster that we get back to a normal way of interacting, the faster that we can have things open, and the faster that we’ve got kids back in school. I really strongly believe that.

“I don’t think that’s universally believed. If you’re someone who runs a small business, if you’re someone who runs a restaurant, or someone who runs a bar, or someone who runs a gym, if you’re someone who’s in the service industry anywhere, there’d be lots of reasons to just reject this outright,” Brown added.

“We’re pretty clear, and we came out with a statement last week about what we thought needs to be done. But we’re not the decision makers.”

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