Rivers on Omicron: the Mild Variant that has re-shaped health care world wide

By Ray Rivers

January 19th, 2022



COVID, since day one of the pandemic, has had a stigma attached to it.  Unless one was a resident in congregate living or a front-line worker at a health centre, school, factory or grocery store, catching COVID was because of carelessness.

Omicron has changed all that.  The virus has spread so extensively and quickly that probably one in three people you know can now claim to have had symptoms; mostly a mild cold if they had been appropriately vaccinated.  Instead of being ashamed people are beginning to wear COVID, almost, like a badge of honour.

Was the Omicron variant of Covid19 a glimpse of what the public was going to have to face for years ?

And that is sad because the latest variant has filled our hospitals and shut down elective surgery.  As we hit 4000 admissions with 600 in the ICU and 40 people a day dying, it should be clear that the term ‘mild’ is just so inappropriate.   While the new variant seems to be taking aim at younger people, it is still taking a toll on more vulnerable seniors.

4000 admissions a day is a lot of hospital beds.  To that end, the federal government has purchased some $300 million worth of field hospital units, which could be quickly assembled.

Something like this was erected near Burlington’s Jo Brant hospital earlier in the epidemic.  But these kits are mostly still sitting in a warehouse waiting for hospitals to have enough staff to use them.  And that is the problem.  COVID, particularly this latest variant not only has filled beds but it is also emptying the wards of sick and overworked staff who would attend to those beds.

There have been a number of articles published recently querying Canada’s health care system.  Of course, it really is 13 provincial/territorial systems delivering health care under the auspices of the federal government and the Canada Health Act.  The Act gives us universal care and a single insurer.

The bottom line, when all is said and done, is that Canada’s health care compares favourably with other nations, even during COVID.  We’re not the lowest cost per capita, but still operate at a lower cost per capita than Germany, Sweden and a host of other European nations.  And besides enjoying better health outcomes, Canadians spend less than half what our southern neighbours do.

Health care had become a political football

Critics like the Fraser Institute, a right wing think tank, will never be content with a single payer public health system.  Yet they fail to appreciate that the private sector is more involved in delivering health care (30%) here than in many other nations.

We have privatized the delivery of diagnostic, hernia repair, colonoscopy, cardiac care and other aspects – taking these services out of the hospitals and into private clinics, though they are still covered by our single payer insurance.

Politicians seeking election always promise to add more hospital beds, as Mr. Ford did last election.  It’s as if more beds is some kind of panacea – will fix what is wrong with the system.  But beds only work if there is staff to care for the people in those beds.  And that situation has only got worse with this pandemic.  When 20-30% of nursing staff are home sick and unable to work, and many are so burned out they are leaving the profession, we have a real problem.

At the beginning of the epidemic lawn signs seemed to be popping up everywhere thanking our front-line heroes for their tireless efforts to save us.   But not everyone felt that way.  In Alberta, as the second wave was receding, Jason Kenny determined in his mind that it was all over and decided to fire 11,000 health care workers.   Then, as if to add insult to injury, he set out to roll wages back by 3%.

Kenny, buoyed with false optimism, also lifted all public health restrictions, making Alberta a living example of the real wild west.  A crisis of his own making ensued as the virus surged back with a vengeance collapsing Alberta’s health care system and swamping its hospitals with sick and dying.  In the end he had to call in the feds to bail the province out.

Nurses were being pushed to the limit and felt they weren’t getting the support they needed. The burnout rate was very high.

And it wasn’t just Alberta.  The Ford government in Ontario has a philosophical problem with unions, but especially those in the broader public sector.  So Ford introduced Bill 124 to cap all public service salaries at an annual 1% increase, even as inflation has recently climbed to almost 5%.  Is it any wonder that nurses in this province are now in full flight to better paying jobs?

Long term care (LTC) in Ontario, and across much of the country, is an idea badly in need of re-invention.  Ontario is losing Minister Rod Phillips, who some consider the most/only competent minister in Ford’s government, providing we forgive him for breaking COVID rules and flying south in the midst of a nasty wave of COVID in the province.  Still, he had brought in some accountability, such as re-introducing the spot inspections of facilities, which Mr. Ford had cancelled soon after becoming premier.

But it’ll take more than that to fix LTC for our seniors, including facilitating people staying longer in their homes, if at all feasible.  And it will take national standards which the feds have promised.  Indeed a national LTC act with appropriate federal funding would be an excellent companion to what the feds have initiated at the other end of the age scale with child care… and, of course, the Canada Health Act itself.

Canadians overwhelmingly support our universal, single payer health care system, with some surveys running as high as 86% approval.  But it could always be made better.  We could add pharmacare, for example, something the previous provincial government in Ontario had been moving towards.  We could put more effort into reducing wait times for elective surgery, especially in geographically remote places where specialists are difficult to find.

And we could start to treat our health care front-line workers, and especially nursing staff, with the respect they deserve.  We should pay them what they are worth and maybe start putting up those ‘thank you’ signs again.

Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington where he ran against Cam Jackson in 1995, the year Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution swept the province. He developed the current policy process for the Ontario Liberal Party.


Background links”

Health Stats –     The Debate –      More Funding –      Fed Mobile Hospitals

Rod Phillips –     Nurses –     Polling on Health Care –      National LTC Standards

Canada vs USA –      Canada VS USA –    Staff Shortages –    Staff Quitting


Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

9 comments to Rivers on Omicron: the Mild Variant that has re-shaped health care world wide

  • Penny Hersh

    Maggie, I agree that only certain tests can be done at Medisen. The clinic does take the wait out of getting a cardiologist and basic tests can be done quickly. It provides a fast first step.

    With regard to going into dental offices etc. My husband went to the dentist and a few days later our Covid App alerted him that he had come in contact with someone who tested positive for Covid ( last March). The only place he had been was at the dentist. We then had to get Covid tests done at the hospital. Three weeks ago a friend told me he was in isolation because he got a call from his dentist to tell him that he had been exposed to another person in the office on the same day who tested positive. Unfortunately it is not always safe in these offices.

    I do agree that some patients require to be seen, and my physician does when absolutely necessary. Going to the emergency room at the hospital should be for emergency’s only, unfortunately that is not always the case and you can sit for hours to be seen by a physician whose mandate is to get you out of Emergency as quickly as possible.

    The system, in my opinion, is broken.

    Many times when I have gone to have tests done the technician would tell me that in their country they were nurses, but had been waiting for years to be allowed to practice in Canada. The shortage of nurses presently because of Covid has opened the door for them to be interviewed for nursing positions.

    • Maggie Riley

      The risk of getting COVID from someone at the dentist is no more risky than at Fortinos or Shoppers or Tim’s. If healthcare workers at JBH can step up, if checkout clerks at Fortinos can step up (get the drift) then so should family doctors. No if, ands or buts.

      Show me where the Ontario government has announced it will accept the qualifications of doctors and nurses from say India or Hong Kong or former Soviet states on a par with those from the UK. I don’t believe that has happened.

  • Ben T

    Excellent review, Ray….it matches most, if not all points you raise….of course a little bit of bias shows…but that is quite allright with me!…looking forward to your next column. Thanks!

  • Penny Hersh

    I found your column very interesting. All that you discuss is not new to those who have had to deal with the health care system in Ontario.

    You mention that “We have privatized the delivery of diagnostic, hernia repair, colonoscopy, cardiac care and other aspects – taking these services out of the hospitals and into private clinics, though they are still covered by our single payer insurance”.

    Thank goodness. Someone I know who needed a colonoscopy and was scheduled to have the work done at Joseph Brant Hospital had been waiting for 6 months and still did not have a scheduled appointment. I suggested that she ask her physician to refer her to GI Health ( one of the private groups) on Appleby and she was seen in 2 weeks.

    There is a clinic called Medisen on Brant Street that deals with cardiac health. It is run by cardiologists who are associated with Joseph Brant Hospital and once referred by a physician one of the cardiologists is assigned to the patient. A patient is seen within 2 weeks or sooner, can have some tests done at the clinic and walk out with a telephone consult with a cardiologist within 2 weeks.

    Try going the route of being referred to a cardiologist or a gastroenterologist or internist by a physician….it could take months to get an initial telephone appointment.

    More of these specialized clinics need to be available. A hospital should be used for acute medical situations only.

    As for long term care homes….This has been an issue for years, not simply since Covid. At least 20 years ago a senior who was trying to get his wife and mother in long term care told us that things were really bad and would only get worse. He was right.

    When Omicron reared its ugly head all we heard was that it would be much milder and those vaccinated and boosted would be safer. There are many double vaccinated and boosted people getting Omicron and it is not always as mild as predicted. Many who walked around telling everyone it would be like a cold are now experiencing excess fatigue, headaches, loss of appetite, sore throat and brain fog and they are the vaccinated.

    Presently it is almost impossible to get a proper covid test, and the rapid tests which are almost impossible to get are not that accurate. WHY is this happening? Because after 2 years all levels of government have mishandled this pandemic.

    The government before Covid supposedly told hospitals that waitlists for knee replacement surgery etc. had to be shortened. The problem then became getting an appointment with a surgeon. In effect people were still waiting for surgery, the backlog went from the hospitals to the surgeons.

    What covid has shown and continues to show is that all levels of government work in 3 year increments. Years ago I attended a meeting with Paul Martin…the one thing I learned was something he said “if governments promise anything over a period longer than 1-2 years chances are it will never happen”.

    Finally Ontario is allowing nurses from accredited nursing programs in other countries who are now living in Canada the ability to work as nurses in Ontario. The shortage of nurses could have been alleviated years ago.

    How voters continue to fall for campaign promises boggles the mind.

    • Maggie Riley

      I am a patient of Medisen and must say my cardiologist seems to be excellent. He replaced my pacemaker back in 2016 when it reached the end if it’s life. Thankfully I outlasted it. LOL. But Medisen does not have the capability to undertake procedures at its Brant St clinic. My heart had been out of rythm for 10 days (atrial flutter) and needed to be shocked back into rythm (cardioverted). Medisen is not equipped to undertake the procedure. So I had to go to JBH, sit around for 5 hours whilst staff there did their due diligence to satisfy themselves of my condition before I received the cardioversion.

      I recently needed a referral to an ENT specialist. The referral came through within a week a d I was seen within 30 days (Christmas intervened).

      My cardiologist and Medisen as a whole are carrying out consultations by phone whenever possible. My Family doctor’s clinic is still closed ti in person appointments. Why is that. I’m sure those same doctors frequent Fortinos, Home Depot, Tim Horton’s, Starbucks and other stores. So if they can mix with the general public like that, why on earth now after 2 years can they not see patients in person like other medical professionals like, dentists, ENT specialists, physics, and of course hospital workers.

      It’s time to resume in person consultations.

      Your comment that the Province is accepting foreign accreditations is a bit misleading. It accepts foreign accreditations from certain countries. But still does accept accreditation from many, many countries. We still have far too many qualified medical professionals driving cabs because Ontario will not recognize their qualifications.

  • Ted Gamble

    I am new to this forum and politically agnostic. After reading several of Mr. Rivers’ comments I am asking myself if Ray is funded. Canada’s heath and LTC systems though are neither properly funded or run.

    Editor’s note: From time to time the budget permits a decent bottle of Scotch – other than that Ray writes because he is a good writer and we are happy to host him

  • John Coakley

    Excellent column, Ray. You sure you don’t want to run for Queen’s Park in October? I (for one) would gladly join your team.

  • Excellent analysis, as always. I was particularly struck by your comment regarding the wearing of covid recovery as a badge of honor. It reminded me of the period in Europe during which the rashes associated with Secondary Syphilis were so much in favor people applied them with cosmetics.
    South of your border I consistently hear negative comments about your health care system, especially from Canadians who live in this area. So, I am very glad to have your review and analysis particularly as it comes from a person of your qualifications and experience.

  • Phil Waggett

    And Ray we could start to restore the Provincial Health Transfer to bring health care funding closer to its initial level, a 50-50 split between the provincial and federal governments. While Trudeau talked a good game on this topic during the federal election and criticized the Conservatives for moving too slowly on this funding, I note that the last federal budget provided no increases in federal transfers for health care. Funny you forgot to mention this.