There’s a record body count this year. A. Record. Body. Count. This year more Canadians have died of COVID than in each of the previous two years of the pandemic.
Delivering healthcare in Canada and protecting the public from disease is the responsibility of provincial governments. Quebec, like all other provincial governments, decided that the COVID pandemic was over, that vaccines alone were all that was needed for society to return to normal. COVID vaccines are impressive — they can help keep you out of hospital. Alone though, they can only reduce the chance of infection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and given the very significant chance of long COVID, more needs to be done to avoid infection and reinfection.
Research early on showed that the virus was airborne. That fact, combined with the precautionary principle, should have had governments getting good quality N95 masks into the hands of every Canadian. Wearing an N95 mask reduces the chance of testing positive for Covid by 83 per cent, according to a U.S. CDC study — that individual protection is compounded when N95s are broadly worn.
In a recent interview in Science [a peer-reviewed journal], Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the departing Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, regretted not acknowledging early and forcefully that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was airborne. It has been some time since authoritative bodies started meekly saying the virus was airborne. Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam explained in a Twitter thread over a year ago that, “Evidence on aerosol spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus shows that expelled virus particles can spread over distances and linger in fine aerosols for periods of time, much like second-hand smoke.”
Instead of acting to prevent the dominant mode of transmission, provincial leaders and public health officers downplayed airborne transmission. There has been a lot of “decision-based evidence-making” at the provincial level to minimize the reality that poor indoor air quality increases transmission.
In Quebec, the former CAQ Minister of Education, Jean- François Roberge, in response to demands to improve air quality in schools, developed a protocol that essentially measured the air when kids were not in class. On the campaign trail earlier this fall, [then] Minister Roberge, when asked about the criticism he received about his indifference to improving the air in schools, said the issue was overblown — “gonflé à l’hélium” in his words. Here we are now with emergency departments and ICUs at pediatric hospitals inflated far past their capacity, full of kids gasping for air.
Medical science alone won’t alleviate the pressure on provincial healthcare systems or help keep kids healthy and in school. Engineering is needed too. The Ontario Society of Professional Engineers’ Indoor Air Quality Advisory Group’s “Core Recommendations for Safer Indoor Air” shows that ventilation, air filtration and transparency are key to safe indoor air. Inexpensive air quality sensors are available that can show how stale and potentially infectious a room’s air is, making air quality transparent to occupants. We are now three years into this pandemic. Ventilation and filtration are needed – along with transparency – to move beyond ongoing healthcare crises. Until that happens and trust is re-established, we need to mask up for our kids’ sake.
Andrew Henry is a Chelsea resident.