THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 48, Season 10
Sunday, October 10, 2021
Host: Mercedes Stephenson
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister
Dr. Alex Wong
Dr. Paul Parks
Location: Ottawa, ON
Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: A warning from the prime minister: Get vaccinated if you want life to return to normal.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “The rules are very simple: to travel, you’ve got to be vaccinated.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Ottawa prepares to enforce vaccine mandates on air and rail travel, plus the Public Service, RCMP and the military.
Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer: “COVID-19 is unlikely to disappear entirely, and there could continue to be bumps along the way.”
Mercedes Stephenson: And your COVID questions, we’ll speak to the federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu about vaccines for kids, booster shots and families getting together this Thanksgiving.
And exhaustion, frustration, anger and burnout…
Dr. Alex Wong: “Everybody almost looks defeated. It’s just now much more that anybody has left to give.”
Mercedes Stephenson: We go behind the scenes with two front line doctors in hard hit Alberta and Saskatchewan.
It’s Sunday, October 10th, and this is The West Block.
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Hello, I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Thank you for joining on your Thanksgiving long weekend.
As Canadians celebrate this Thanksgiving, the message from public health officials is: enjoy the holiday with family and friends. But how you do that depends on where you live. In some provinces, there are limited restrictions as long as everybody is double vaccinated. But in New Brunswick, people are being told to limit their gatherings to single households only. While in Saskatchewan, there are no limits. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says overall, Canada is in better shape this Thanksgiving than last year.
Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer: “Previously, we have seen surges in cases after these holiday events. So this year with the vaccine onboard, I think we should be on a better, more solid footing. But we can’t, you know, be too careful when it comes to this formidable foe, as I’ve said, the Delta variant.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Joining me now is Health Minister Patty Hajdu. Minister, nice to see you, thank you for joining us.
We’re here yet again to talk about COVID, which I think a lot of us would rather not be talking about on Thanksgiving weekend. But as long as it is an issue, we will continue to talk about it on this show. And as folks are gathering for the Thanksgiving holiday, there are a lot of families coming together and that also means there are a lot of children. And one of the big questions that we hear from viewers is: Are you expecting that there will be vaccinations available to Canadian children and that they will be vaccinated? And if so, what is the timeline on that potentially look like?
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: It’s a really good question, and it’s a great sign that parents are anxious to have a vaccine that’s safe and effective for use in their kids because as you have pointed out, they remain really vulnerable in our communities and obviously, some children get really sick. Luckily a lot them don’t, but some get very, very ill and of course, they can also transmit the virus to other people in their lives and their communities. We do know that Pfizer has submitted some data to Health Canada regulators, but we expect the full package in the next week or two and then the regulators will do what they do, which is review all of that data and evidence, including potentially visiting some of the manufacturing sites, to assure that they are confident in the safety data and the efficacy data, and then when they’re fully ready to do so, they’ll approve it for use in Canada. And as I said, this—we do have an ability to expedite these reviews because we have spent millions and millions of dollars to ensure the regulators have enough scientists and data analysts and researchers so that—so that they can very quickly do this work. But I’m reluctant to give you an exact date because of course, sometimes there’s back and forth with the corporation about missing pieces of data, etc.
Mercedes Stephenson: For sure, and obviously when we’re talking about kids, people want all of that information in place when they’re making the decision for their children.
Booster shots is another subject that’s getting more and more attention. We’re hearing from some of the big pharma companies that there’s concerns about how long the shots last that you might need if you’ve had two, to get a third. In a country like Israel, for example, they’re now mandating everybody to get another booster shot. Do you expect that Health Canada is going to recommend and to what degree are you looking at this—booster shots for not just those who are immunocompromised and elderly but for all Canadians?
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well I won’t pronounce what will happen with the scientists here in Canada, but I do know they look at national and international data on immunity, on transmission rates and on efficacy from around the world. Obviously, this is something that the National Advisory Committee on Immunization will weigh-in on as well. They are, in fact, the ones that have recently recommended the use of booster shots for immunocompromised people or people living in congregate settings, and as that data becomes, you know, more obvious I suppose, based on the world’s experience, then we could anticipate that there may be changes in advice from NACI, as well from Health Canada, from the regulator perspective. In fact, companies, as you know, are applying for the use of boosters in countries and that data will be very helpful in making those decisions for both the regulators and the advisory committee.
Mercedes Stephenson: Do we have enough supply right now to give every Canadian a booster shot if that is the recommendation?
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well we have enough supply purchased for sure, for Canadians that would require booster shots in the circumstances that everyone would need a booster shot. But again, what we will be following closely is the data and the recommendation by the regulators and by the advisory committees, and of course, these are provincial decisions at the end of the day. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization will provide their advice. The regulators, of course, will regulate about a product safety in the Canadian space. But at the end of the day, different provinces may have different approaches based on their own medical advice. And all I can say is that should there be a requirement for everyone to have a booster, then Canadians can be confident that we’ll have the supply we need.
Mercedes Stephenson: And when it comes to where you can travel and where you can’t, one of the big questions for a lot of folks who are snowbirds thinking about going to the United States, or hoping to finally be able to book a vacation somewhere warm, safely this year, is the question of vaccine mixing. Right now, the United States won’t recognize someone as fully vaccinated who’s had an AstraZeneca shot and then, say, a Moderna or Pfizer shot. We’re expecting their rules on air travellers who can come into the country to kick in pretty soon. Have you talked to your counterpart about this in the United States? Will they recognize Canadians as being fully vaccinated who have mixed vaccines, or could we potentially have many, many, many people who can’t go south of the border?
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well first I’ll just say, and I’ll remind Canadians that as annoying as it is, and I think everybody is looking forward to a hot holiday, but some Canadians even want to travel because they haven’t seen family in a very long time, that we still have travel advisories in place recommending that people don’t travel unless it’s absolutely necessary. And there are a couple of reasons for that. One, you know, there are a number of places in the world where COVID is still very, very out of control, including some American states, and we also know that different jurisdictions change rules around travel very quickly. And we’ve seen a number of stories over the last 18 months or so of Canadians finding out when they’ve arrived in another country that the rules have changed and that they now have hurdles to get back to Canada, or challenges to get into the country in which they’ve just arrived. So these recommendations, those advisories are still in place.
I will say on the issue of mixed dosing, members of—my counterparts have had conversations with their colleagues. I spoke with Secretary Becerra before the election. This is something that I think all countries are working through which vaccines will they accept as proof of vaccination for entry into the country, and we’re going to continue to work with our American counterparts to share all the data they need to move on this issue.
Mercedes Stephenson: Are you confident that you’ll be able to convince them that the mixed vaccines are safe and effective?
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well I would just say they have a similar process to ours, Mercedes, which is that they will be consulting with their own advisory committees, their own regulators, and of course, looking at safety and efficacy data from around the world. I will say that we’ll continue to, obviously, press the Americans to recognize vaccine dose mixing. But ultimately, at the end of the day, this is work that’s happening around the world in a variety of jurisdictions and we know that, for example, the World Health Organization (WHO) adds vaccines on a regular basis that they feel are safe and effective and could we accept it as proof of vacation. Here in Canada, for example, to enter Canada, you have to be fully vaccinated with a vaccine that is approved for use here in Canada, which is an irritant for some travellers who’ve been vaccinated in other jurisdictions. I suspect that this will continue to be a work in progress for countries, including the United States, including Canada about how we ensure that we have the confidence in vaccines that we haven’t had the ability to fully review from a scientific database. And that’s the work that we’ll continue to do here in Canada, and I’m confident our international partners will do so as well.
Mercedes Stephenson: Your government is introducing a program whereby you have to be vaccinated and provide proof of vaccination, to get on a plane or a train in Canada, to be able to travel. We hear from some viewers who say they feel this is unfair. They feel they’re being targeted. They want to know why they can’t rapid test. What do you say to people who are angry about this program, to explain to them why your government has made this decision?
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well first of all, I can just say that, you know, listen, living through a pandemic, a global pandemic is frustrating, it’s scary and it’s—and so many people have had so many difficult situations. Some we have heard about and others that we maybe will never hear about. So my heart is with everyone who is struggling through this pandemic and the many, many challenges it’s placing on families, on communities and on provinces. And I’ll just say that in terms of this particular policy, it’s about creating a safe space for everyone, first of all, who has to travel, that we are confident that those travel spaces are as safe as possible, preventing the transmission of the virus from one another. But it’s also a really important component of reducing the transmissibility of the virus from one spot to another across the country. As you know, we’ve seen outbreaks where people have travelled for a variety of reasons across the country, either for work or for personal reasons, and unwittingly, seeded an infection in another community. So this policy will serve the purpose of creating domestic travel spaces that are far safer for everyone, but also help reduce the mobility of the virus. At the end of the day, you know, communities are working incredibly hard to keep COVID out of their community so they can continue to protect the health of everyone, but also continue to provide the functioning of their communities, their schools, their small business and their economy.
Mercedes Stephenson: One last question for you about a drug that is being used in the United States made by Merck, a pill to treat COVID. Any news on when that antiviral might be approved in Canada?
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Well I don’t have a specific date. I do know that the regulators have reached out to the corporation and those conversations are ongoing. We are very excited obviously about any tool that we can have access to here in Canada that’s a safe treatment for COVID-19. Certainly that will go a long way in adding to the toolbox, if you will, of the measures that we are currently using to protect people, to save lives and to stop the spread of the virus. So we’ll continue that work with Merck and make sure that when they’re ready to submit to Canada, we’re ready to rapidly review that application.
Mercedes Stephenson: Minister Hajdu, thank you so much for your time today.
Patty Hajdu, Health Minister: Thank you very much, Mercedes. Have a great Thanksgiving weekend.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, the view from the front lines. We’ll speak to two doctors in hard hit Saskatchewan and Alberta about the impact of COVID on health care workers and the patients they’re trying to save.
Mercedes Stephenson: The latest federal health data shows that more than 82 per cent of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated, and there are signs that COVID cases are starting to drop, but not everywhere. There are still regions of the country experiencing high rates of infection and that’s overwhelming already stretched hospitals.
Saskatchewan and Alberta continue to see the highest rates of COVID cases and hospitalization in the country. On the front lines of the crisis are health care workers. Doctors and nurses who have been sharing their stories of exhaustion and burnout as ICUs are overwhelmed with COVID patients.
Joining me now is Dr. Paul Parks, he’s an emergency physician in Medicine Hat, Alberta and he’s also the Emergency Department President of the Alberta Medical Association, as well as Dr. Alex Wong, he’s an infectious disease specialist in Regina. Thank you both for joining us, doctors. Obviously, you’re right on the frontlines of this crisis. You’re seeing it up close.
Dr. Wong, I was really struck by a Twitter post that you put up describing the desperation of a terminally ill COVID patient who tragically died of this disease. Can you tell us what you’re hearing from patients in the hospitals, especially unvaccinated patients who are finding out they have COVID-19 and realizing just how dire the situation is?
Dr. Alex Wong, Infectious Disease Specialist, Regina, Saskatchewan: You know it’s a wide variety of emotions, but I think what we most commonly see is, you know, a lot of fear, a lot of regrets, a lot of sadness, and honestly, there’s times where there’s anger and where there’s denial as well, this can’t be happening to me. You know, so it’s a whole range. But, you know, no matter what we see, it’s—it’s often really tragic, you know, people asking, you know, can I get vaccinated now? Is it too late? You know, can you give me the shots? You know, is that going to help me? You know, and then again, I mean, you know, when people are deteriorating quickly, I mean, trying to facilitate words to family and loved ones and so forth, those phone calls and those FaceTime videos and so forth before someone needs to be intubated and you know, it’s just—it just tugs at the heart strings. And so, you know, I think there’s a lot of exhaustion, obviously, especially amongst our ICU staff, you know, people that—it’s our best people looking after the most sick individuals and, you know, it’s tremendously hard at this point in the fourth wave, trying to find, you know, the energy and the spirit and whatever we need to kind of keep pushing forward. And there’s a lot of a sense of, you know, that we’re trying to, you know, kind of be there for one another more than anything at this point, and obviously, for the patients that we serve.
Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Parks, you wrote that very powerful letter to Premier Jason Kenney, asking him to actually come to the hospital, to come to the ICUs and to see what is happening on the front lines, because the intellectual idea of there being more bed capacity, you were saying in your letter, doesn’t reflect the reality of the jigsaw puzzle that’s going in to try and move patients around, to be able to accommodate this and just how tough it is. Have you heard anything about whether the premier might come and actually see this? Any sense of whether your plea is registering?
Dr. Paul Parks, Emergency Physician in Medicine Hat, Alberta: So we—we have heard from the minister of health that he is going to try to arrange a meeting, but at this point in time, I don’t think either of them have taken us up on our plea, actually, that they come and see for, you know with their own eyes, the human impact. So that’s the big thing that we are really concerned about is that it’s often easy to just look at numbers on the page and see thousands of cases and hundreds of people in ICU and forget the real human impact that that has on the patients and then come in and see what it’s like to have over full ICU departments in the basements of our hospital, or choose critically-ill prone patients in a room that’s only designed for one. Come see how hard the health care workers are—are really struggling to deliver, you know, it’s suboptimal care, but it’s the best we can do. And so, you know, I liken it to, you know, a general in disaster wartimes needs to see what he’s ordering the troops to do. I really think that our leaders, when they’re making policies and making decisions, they—they need to come in and see the real human impact that’s happening in our hospitals.
Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Wong, you know, what is your sense or your belief on why it is that some politicians don’t seem to want to put restrictions in place, in places, for example, like Saskatchewan at gatherings? What do you think is the motivating factor there because you’re looking at the health side, but I know you’re both very politically aware individuals as well? You understand how this works. What do you think the holdup is?
Dr. Alex Wong, Infectious Disease Specialist, Regina, Saskatchewan: You know, again, as health care workers and as doctors, I think our responsibility is to advocate for the system, to advocate for our colleagues, to advocate for patients and, you know, to minimize death and suffering. And that’s what we’re seeing right now and it’s just overwhelming us, and it’s going to get worse at least here in Saskatchewan before it gets better. Whatever the—the political calculus of all this is, and again, I mean, I—I can speculate. I don’t necessarily know how helpful that is. You know, I—I don’t know whether or not it’s about doing what’s most politically expedient or convenient, or—or whether or not it’s about potentially worrying about insulting a certain voter base, or, you know, having a certain group of individuals be upset or angry. But what’s happening right now in the province is—that, you know, has impacts across the board like with our economy, with health care, you know, with the mental health and wellbeing of—of every—of all Saskatchewanians, but also, you know, obviously those in the health care system. And the impacts of this, you know, beyond when we get out of this some way, somehow in six, eight, ten, twelve weeks’ time, there’s going to be these long-term impacts on our health care system, health care workers and so forth that I don’t even know what that’s even going to look like. So, you know, our responsibility is to continue to advocate, to do so in ways that, you know, are appropriate and at the same time, you know, realizing that that is the responsibility of our elected officials and, you know, we on the front lines, need to do everything possible, to provide the best possible care for every patient that needs it.
Dr. Paul Parks, Emergency Physician in Medicine Hat, Alberta: I was just going to add to that. Just that it’s really critical that the, you know, Canadians and our leaders understand too, that this isn’t just about COVID patients. So we’re talking now like if someone has a motor vehicle collision, we might have difficulty caring for them. We’re talking about 10,000 cancelled scheduled surgeries. The impact is so wide and so far spread that the ramifications we’ll be dealing with is going to be months and months long, and that’s why we’re trying so hard to get the attention right now of the decision-makers and policy makers.
Mercedes Stephenson: What’s the emotional impact on you as physicians? And not just those in the ICU, because obviously, there’s a very serious impact when you are treating the sickest patients, when are having to be with them as they’re dying. Something a family would normally be able to be there and hold their hand, and when it’s COVID that often is not the case. But the impact as well on having to deliver news to cancer patients that they’re unable to get a surgery, or to someone who has been injured that they’re not going to be able to get that knee replacement, how does that feel just on a human level?
Dr. Paul Parks, Emergency Physician in Medicine Hat, Alberta: You know what’s really, really hard is every single day we’re on the front lines in emerge and we are again and again having to deliver this kind of news and this kind of impact and it’s really difficult because we also know that a lot of this could be prevented if we could have good public health policy and large numbers of people vaccinated. A lot of what we’re seeing now is—is, you know, very difficult to have to deal with day in and day out, knowing the real human suffering that it’s causing and so it’s very demoralizing. We’re there. We’re going to continue doing our absolute best. The nurses are stretched as thin as they can and every day they’re still coming to work, but it’s tiring and it is demoralizing.
Dr. Alex Wong, Infectious Disease Specialist, Regina, Saskatchewan: And I just want to echo, you know, what Paul said and to say, you know, when people ask us, for example, you know, why their surgeries are being cancelled, their procedures are being cancelled, why they can’t go for whatever it is that they otherwise were scheduled for, they ask us why and we don’t have any answers for that, you know, other than to say, you know, there’s just—it’s just a really difficult time. So, you know, again, the impacts are going to be felt long-term, you know, regardless of whether you have COVID or whether you don’t. You know, we’re going to be digging out of this for months and months to come.
Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Wong, Dr. Parks, thank you both so much for joining us and for your hard work on the front lines of this pandemic. Canadians appreciate what you’re doing.
Dr. Paul Parks, Emergency Physician in Medicine Hat, Alberta: Thanks, Mercedes.
Dr. Alex Wong, Infectious Disease Specialist, Regina, Saskatchewan: Thanks. Thanks for reporting on this. It’s important. Thanks very much.
Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, helping those in need. Find out how Governor General Mary May Simon spent her first Thanksgiving in her new role. The details on her first state visit are up next.
Mercedes Stephenson: Thanksgiving is all about coming together and giving thanks for all that we have, but many Canadians are alone and in need on this long weekend.
Unidentified Speaker: “I’ll get you one.”
Mercedes Stephenson: Governor General Mary May Simon and her husband, Whit Fraser, visited the Ottawa Mission this weekend, serving meals to those who need a helping hand. They also spent time learning more about the services the Mission provides to people experiencing homelessness and poverty. In one week, Simon will leave on her first official state visit. She’s going to head to Germany, where she will be representing Canada at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest literary trade show.
That’s our show for this Thanksgiving weekend. Thanks for watching, and we’ll be back here next Sunday. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, for The West Block. Happy Thanksgiving.