Opinion

Introducing the Canadian Covid Society – because we need it

Four years of illness. More than 57,000 confirmed deaths in Canada. Three and a half million people with long-COVID. Recurrent waves causing destabilization of our health-care system from increased demand and a depleted health-care workforce due to burnout, acute and chronic COVID illness. It’s time for Canadians to organize and advocate for patients, for ourselves and for our kids. It’s time for better policy from our health authorities and politicians.

It’s time for the Canadian Covid Society.

To this point, outside of government-funded vaccine awareness initiatives, COVID advocacy has been left to small, grassroots, self-organized, volunteer-run groups – trying to fill informational gaps where Public Health has been absent; educating the public about risks in schools and workplaces; airborne transmission and how to prevent it; long COVID and the like. They have played a critical role in keeping all of us safe and pushing for better policy at all levels of government. Truly amazing.

But volunteers, working off the sides of their desks, caring for families, working full-time jobs, subject to burnout and long COVID, can’t do this forever. It is time for a formal organization, funded by donations and grants, staffed by dedicated experts who can do the work that needs to be done in the years and decades ahead. Making changes we need to see, to navigate the long road ahead.

In 2022, (after the “mild” Omicron variant appeared on the scene) COVID was the 3rd leading cause of death in Canada (we don’t yet have the data for 2023). Far above influenza and pneumonia. COVID is in part implicated in a full-year loss of life expectancy in 2022, and it has not gone away.

Despite everyone’s hope, a vaccine-only strategy has not successfully gotten rid of the virus. We’re now into our ninth? tenth? (who’s counting?) wave of COVID, with no end in sight. We’re told it is endemic now, and we must “learn to live with it,” which in effect, seems to mean ignore it. Continue with life as if nothing has changed. But for many, the vulnerable, the elderly, learning to live with the virus means learning to die with it, and increasingly, for the rest of us, learning to become disabled by it.

Public health efforts seem to have evaporated when it comes to COVID.

Most major health-care institutions have yet to acknowledge the reality of airborne transmission that,  at this point, is settled science. The Public Health Agency of Canada, to its credit, states that the virus “moves through the air like smoke” but will not use the terms aerosol or airborne, likely due to the legal and regulatory implications. Provincial public health bodies have been uniformly silent on the issue, except once, when the outgoing New Brunswick Chief Medical Officer was forced to acknowledge it under questioning in the legislature.

How are people to protect themselves if they don’t have a basic understanding of how it is transmitted? Our protective strategy as it stands today is akin to trying to stop the spread of chlamydia without acknowledging the role of sex.

Our protective strategy as it stands today is akin to trying to stop the spread of chlamydia without acknowledging the role of sex.

Understanding airborne transmission allows us to implement policies that protect us from infection. Essentially, it means cleaning the air in shared public spaces via adequate ventilation and filtration. Including schools. Especially schools. And we can assess air-safety through monitoring and transparent communication of CO2 levels, an excellent real-time proxy for the rebreathed air in a public space.

Despite the antipathy towards masks, in high-risk periods and in high-risk spaces, they play a role. No amount of ventilation can protect you from close contact with a person with a high viral load. Hospitals, now in a state of constant crisis, filled with vulnerable patients, and high-risk due to the high concentration of COVID-positive people, should never lose universal masking. And we should be transitioning to better quality respirator masks, ensuring the most comfortable ones are available.

Despite being told that we need to judge our own risks in making our COVID safety decisions, information about those risks is extremely hard to come by and is not being communicated clearly to the public. We need better data collection and sharing of current community risks to the public; despite “pandemic fatigue” the media still has a responsibility to continue informing the public on all things COVID.

There remains a lack of public understanding of long COVID, its frequency and its consequences. Thanks to the pervasive silence from governments, people don’t understand that approximately 5 to 20 per cent of infections have long-term consequences, which range from inconveniences like chronic coughing and loss of taste and smell to debilitating impacts like life-altering fatigue and shortness of breath. Those at highest risk are women aged 40-69. Being up to date on vaccines substantially decreases your risk of getting long COVID. The public, by and large, understands none of this, or that most protective of all is preventing infection in the first place.

Although vaccines are important, the combined impact of multiple layers of protection would be many times more effective than our current vaccine-only approach. The public needs education on the fact that immune protection wanes and that past vaccines aren’t adequately protective against today’s variants. The current uptake of 15 per cent for the XBB COVID vaccine does not bode well for our protection against the surging JN.1 variants, or for ones to come. With substantial social media-based misinformation and disinformation on vaccine effectiveness and safety, there is a need to counter this with more and better evidence. And we need well-funded research on improved, sterilizing vaccines.

Canada needs a formal inquiry to assess what went wrong (and right) in our response to COVID. The Campbell inquiry following SARS-1 in 2003 laid out an excellent blueprint for future pandemic responses that has been ignored throughout this pandemic. We need to ensure that this never happens again.

Our task is not an easy one. Starting from scratch, raising the money needed to hire staff, ensuring good governance and pushing against the status quo. By focusing on evidence-based science, science-based policy and a long-term vision for the health of Canadians, we are ready to create an organization which will have the support of like-minded scientists, citizens and institutions.

We invite you to join us in creating a strong voice for a safer future.

This article was first published in Canada Healthwatch.

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Authors

Joe Vipond

Contributor

Dr. Joe Vipond is an emergency doctor in Calgary, clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary, the co-founder of Masks4Canada, ProtectourProvinceAB and the Canadian Covid Society.

jvipond@yahoo.com

Chris Houston

Contributor

Chris Houston FRSA is the CEO of Humanitarian Associates, Faculty at the University of Toronto’s Global Health Education Initiative, the President of the Canadian Peace Museum charity and a co-founder of the Canadian Covid Society.

Kashif Pirzada

Contributor

Kashif Pirzada is an emergency physician in Toronto and faculty member at the University of Toronto and a founder of the Critical Drugs Coalition, a group of pharmaceutical experts, physicians and others working on alleviating future drug shortages in Canada.

Nancy Delagrave

Contributor

Nancy Delagrave is a college physics professor in Montréal. She helped write Bill 192 on air quality and school safety in Québec and is the co-founder of COVID-Stop, the Canadian Aerosol Transmission Coalition and the Canadian Covid Society.

Cheryl White

Contributor

Cheryl White is a professional engineer and lean practitioner in Toronto. She is a cancer survivor who was in active treatment at the onset of the pandemic which informs her passion to reduce transmission. She is a member of Masks4Canada, co-founder and Chair of CAVI, and co-founder of the Canadian Covid Society.

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