TORONTO, March 15, 2023—We may be finished with COVID-19, but COVID isn’t finished with us.
That was the message from physicians and researchers who spoke at an Ontario Medical Association media briefing on lessons learned from the pandemic and how to prevent or prepare for another one.
March 17 is the third anniversary of Ontario’s imposition of a state of emergency after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. March 26 also marks the 20th anniversary of a similar emergency declaration to combat SARS.
Panellists noted that thousands of Ontarians are still contracting COVID and it’s possible a new variant of the virus could emerge, so it’s important for everyone to get their COVID vaccinations and boosters.
“All of us are still just a little bit anxious that there is room for one more new variant that could cause a lot of trouble if it chose to,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist and senior clinician scientist at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute of the Sinai Health System in Toronto.
Public Health Ontario reported 3,914 new cases of COVID the week before March 4, 255 hospitalizations and 34 deaths.
“COVID is here to stay and we need to be vigilant and try to prevent not only acute COVID but Long COVID,” said Dr. Angela Cheung, a senior physician scientist with Toronto’s University Health Network.
Long COVID is the name given to the condition where patients experience COVID symptoms for more than 12 weeks. Statistics Canada said nearly 15 per cent of Canadians who had COVID reported having symptoms lasting at least three months and the Public Health Agency of Canada recognizes Long COVID-19 as a major public health burden.
Dr. Cheung, who is also a professor in the Department of Medicine and Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto, said there are up to 200 symptoms of Long COVID, the most common being fatigue, shortness of breath, palpitations and brain fog. She said Long COVID affects women more than men and it impacts more than just patients’ physical health.
“Long Covid and the effects of Long Covid are very real,” she said. “It’s a physical condition with mental health consequences. … It’s affecting [patients’] ability to work, also relationships between family members and friends, because there’s a lot of disbelief in terms of whether Long COVID is real.”
Dr. Cheung said there were 30 patients with Long COVID in her hospital alone. The Long COVID Web project, which she co-leads to better understand this condition, find new treatments and improve care, recently received $20 million from the Canadian Institute of Health Research.
Panel members stressed the need to prepare for the next pandemic.
“We know there’s going to be another pandemic, definitely,” said Dr. McGeer, who is also a professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto.
OMA Past President Dr. Adam Kassam, who moderated the panel discussion, agreed.
“The risk of other disease outbreaks and even another pandemic is a real one,” he said. “Physicians, public health experts and others around the world are watching for signs of whether population growth or climate change are leading to an increase in diseases that begin in animals and are transmitted to humans, whether there is a resurgence of previously controlled diseases such as polio, tuberculosis and measles, and whether we are seeing bacteria that are resistant to the drugs designed to kill them.”
Pandemic preparedness is one of the major areas of focus in the OMA’s Prescription for Ontario: Doctor’s 5-Point Plan for Better Health Care, a roadmap of realistic and achievable recommendations to fix the gaps in the health-care system.
Ontario’s doctors believe planning for the next pandemic starts with a robust public health system that has the proper resources to protect the entire population’s health. The Ontario government has passed legislation to enable the OMA recommendation to create a provincial pandemic plan that would be updated every five years.
Other OMA recommendations include:
Panellists also noted the need to ensure that in any future pandemic, all communities are treated equitably. Studies have found that Black people, Indigenous people and ethnic minority groups across Canada had higher rates of COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths than other Canadians, and many had lower vaccination rates.
“The really important lesson we need to learn is how the pandemic made clear so many inequities within society at so many levels,” Dr. McGeer said. “I'm really hoping that, independent of all of the pandemic preparedness, we can look at what we’ve learned about the inequities and spend time focused on trying to make sure that does not continue.”
Dr. McGeer said it was also important public officials had the trust of citizens to prevent the spread of misinformation: “It was a surprise to everybody that there was so much misinformation spread so quickly on social media.”
Dr. Scott Gray-Owen, co-director of the new Canadian Hub for Health Intelligence and Innovation in Infectious Disease at the University of Toronto, said we need to build surveillance networks around the country and the world to track new viruses.
The hub, which is focused on enhancing Canada’s ability to respond quickly to future pandemics, brings together more than 80 partners, including universities, research hospitals, government, non-profit agencies and industry. It recently received funding from the Bio Sciences Research Infrastructure Fund to dramatically expand its capacity to study pathogens from around the world to understand which are most likely to jump from animals to humans.
“We don’t know what the next challenge is,” said Dr. Gray-Owen, who has a PhD in bacterial pathogenesis. “It could be another coronavirus. It could be influenza. It could be anti-microbial resistant bacteria.”
He said it was critical to have research and biomanufacturing infrastructure and investment in place to respond to the next virus.
“You can’t go out and hire a whole bunch of molecular virologists very quickly. They’re not just sitting around. The ability to respond to these emerging threats early on and really rapidly comes from having this infrastructure and having this talent available all the time. This isn't something that can just sit and wait for the next emerging pandemic.”
The Ontario Medical Association represents Ontario’s 43,000-plus physicians, medical students and retired physicians, advocating for and supporting doctors while strengthening the leadership role of doctors in caring for patients. Our vision is to be the trusted voice in transforming Ontario’s health-care system.
For more information, please contact:
Leslie Shepherd, OMA Director of Earned and Social Media