covid testing, Covid-19, Parkdale - High Park

Fighting Covid at the Runnymede Theatre

The Runnymede Theatre then and now. Picture to the left courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

I have been fortunate to live in the Bloor West area for over 20 years. The neighbourhood appealed to me even way back when I was a teenager growing up in Scarborough. One day in the mid ‘80s my high school buddy Colin, a connoisseur of repertoire foreign cinema, convinced me to skip school and take the subway all the way from Kennedy Station to Runnymede to watch a movie with him at the Runnymede Theatre. This was my first time in the neighbourhood, and right away Bloor West Village impressed me with its cafes, bakeries, restaurants, flower shops, and long sidewalks. Things which are not easy to find in Scarborough in one spot. I love old theatres and the Runnymede Theatre was beautiful.


When I moved to the Bloor West area in the early 2000’s the Runnymede Theatre had become a Chapters bookstore, where I would spend countless hours browsing with friends and eventually buying so many books. It is fair to say this building holds special memories for me. So, I cannot honestly say I was thrilled to see it become a Shoppers Drug Mart years later, but I was still happy to see this heritage building remain intact.

Who back in the ‘80s or ‘90s would have thought the Runnymede Theatre would later become a pharmacy and thus play a key role in fighting a global pandemic by providing vaccines and antigen tests? As someone with elderly parents I was strongly motivated to be vaccinated and managed to receive my two doses quickly this past summer: the first dose in a Shoppers Drug Mart in Brampton (back in May that was the closest vaccine location available for me at the time); and the second dose at the Metro Convention Centre in late June.


One of my goals this year was to meet my youngest niece who was born last year in the US. Travel restrictions made it impossible to meet her in person, so, I only had seen her in FaceTime and Zoom for about a year. When air travel to the US became possible, I got a Covid antigen test at the former Runnymede Theatre, now the Bloor West Village Shoppers. The antigen test is a requirement to travel to the US, even for those who have received two doses of the vaccine. As expected, for someone with two doses and who works from home, the test result was negative. So, I was finally able to fly, and needless to say it was a thrill to meet my niece in person.


I hope the Runnymede Theatre is never demolished. Or if it were to be demolished, I wish it lasts for “10,000 years” like the love story in the beautiful Hong Kong film Chungking Express. This wonderful building reminds me of watching classic foreign-language movies, wonderful reads, spending time with great friends, and the antigen test that allowed me to at long last meet my youngest niece.

Covid-19, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, vaccines

Vaccination is a personal decision with public and financial consequences

There are many great reasons to live in the riding of Parkdale – High Park. One of them is accessibility to vaccines. Such as the Healing Source Pharmacy on Bloor West near Runnymede which now has Covid-19 vaccine walk-ins. Another one is responsible businesses such as my favourite Korean restaurant Ka Chi on Bloor West near Windermere which advertises that all their employees are fully vaccinated.


I say responsible because a vaccinated person is far less likely to contract Covid and spread it. So, while vaccination is a personal decision, not vaccinating can have serious consequences resulting in hospitalization, long-term illness and death. Therefore, it makes sense to encourage vaccination to protect the public.


Unfortunately, in T.O. not everyone has easy access to vaccines. Some people work long hours, cannot afford to take time off, or have small children to take care of. Consequently, both employers and governments could do more to promote vaccination. For example, the US is already providing tax credits to encourage people to get vaccinated. It would be great if similar policies were to be adopted here in Canada. We are in the middle of an election campaign, so, if you meet your local candidates it might be a good idea to ask them, what is your party going to do to encourage vaccination if elected?


Insurance companies are already providing discounts to those that get vaccinated. It is only fair since those that choose not to get vaccinated pose a higher public risk and therefore a higher insurance risk. Consequently, anyone getting a vaccine may receive financial remuneration, while anyone deciding to not get vaccinated will not receive this economic benefit. Furthermore, anyone not getting a vaccine will have to pay for expensive Covid tests to attend public gatherings such as a concert, sporting event, or to travel by plane or train. While those fully vaccinated will not require tests. So, it will become very expensive to not get vaccinated soon.


Those claiming that using financial incentives to encourage vaccination is somehow tyrannical should note that tyrannies take arbitrary measures, and these incentives are not arbitrary. These are fair and reasonable incentives made with the sole purpose to protect the public. It only makes sense that anyone taking an unreasonable risk should be held at a minimum financially accountable for that risk. While those getting vaccinated should receive compensation for spending their valuable time to help protect our community.

Covid-19, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, public washrooms, Toronto, Ward 4

Few public washrooms in Parkdale – High Park

Last week, I saw a person behind Runnymede Station urinating in a corner. Before rushing to judgment, let me tell you a fact: there are zero public washrooms open right now in Bloor West Village. As per the map below from the City of T.O. the nearest public washroom would be in High Park. Furthermore, the washrooms in nearby Runnymede Library are closed. And it is not reasonable these days to expect anyone to try to find a private washroom to use in a restaurant, since these washrooms are generally closed due to the pandemic. Finally, there are no public washrooms in Runnymede Station, and the nearest TTC public washroom would be in Kipling station.

This blog post could easily have been titled “Few public washrooms in T.O.”. However, I wanted to focus on my neighbourhood as an example, since there are no public washrooms right now open in the Junction, Roncesvalles, and Baby Point. There are only a couple of public washrooms open in Swansea and one public washroom open in Parkdale. Several of the public washrooms that are open in our neighbourhood are concentrated in one place: High Park.

Even before the pandemic, it has always been a challenge to find public washrooms in this city. Only if you are a customer (i.e. going to a movie, eating out at a restaurant, shopping at a mall, or buying gasoline) do you have access to a nearby washroom. We have accepted this reality although it is unfair.

Unfair, because if you were to travel to other countries like France or Taiwan it is easy to find public washrooms on the street or the subway. In these countries, you do not have to be a customer to conveniently find a nearby public washroom.

If we are to build back better and work towards a more inclusive and fairer T.O., we need to address the lack of public washrooms in our neighbourhood and throughout the entire city.

There are few public washrooms in T.O.
Covid-19, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, vaccines

Finding a Vaccine Appointment in Parkdale – High Park

Vaccine pop-up in Woodbine Racetrack, Rexdale

Update: It’s happening, more pop-ups are opening up to people from all T.O. postal codes e.g. https://twitter.com/HRHospital/status/1392520751744524301 please visit https://twitter.com/TOVaccineFinder and https://vaccinehunters.ca/ for information on upcoming vaccine pop-up clinics.

Parkdale – High Park includes four postal codes: M6P, M6R, M6S, and part of M6K. Only M6K is a provincially designated hot zone. Consequently, many people living in Parkdale – High Park might not qualify yet for an appointment at a City of Toronto operated vaccine clinic. However, when vaccine pop-up locations and pharmacies have extra doses and not enough appointments, they sometimes open their doors to anyone living in T.O. This means that even if you live in a non-hot zone such as M6P, M6R, and M6S you may be able to get a vaccine. Naturally, people living in any zone and are at greater risk for contagion due to their living arrangements, health condition, or work, for example, are already a priority to receive a vaccine. For more information visit the St. Joseph’s vaccine booking site or your local hospital’s site: https://unityhealth.to/how-to-book-covid-appointment/

Pop-ups

Vaccine pop-ups are meant to ensure that those living in hot zones have an opportunity to get vaccinated easily and conveniently right in their community without traveling far. Last weekend there was a pop-up in the Woodbine Racetrack for the Rexdale community from Saturday until Monday. Not many people from Rexdale showed up on Monday. So, the wonderful volunteers running this event opened the clinic to anyone living or working in a T.O. hot zone.  After those living or working in a T.O. hot zone were vaccinated, the volunteers opened the doors to anyone living in a T.O. postal code, including non-hot zones, such as M6P, M6R, and M6S. No doses went to waste. I found this out thanks to a very helpful Twitter account named @TOVaccineFinder. You could use this account to find a vaccine location for you.

Update: some pop-ups are for people living or working in specific hot zones. So, if you live in M6P, M6R, and M6S but work in a hot zone you may qualify for a vaccine appointment in specific pop-ups. Furthermore, the Twitter account https://twitter.com/VaxHuntersCan is also very helpful in helping find pop-ups. The situation is rapidly evolving and some pop-ups now accept anyone 40+ living in T.O., here is an example: https://twitter.com/TOVaccineFinder/status/1392463526388772869

For over twenty years I have been living in Parkdale – High Park. However, I grew up in Scarborough in what is now one of the Covid hot zones in GTA. So, I have great sympathy for anyone living in a hot zone and completely agree that their vaccination and that of those facing higher risks should be a priority.

Pharmacies

Similarly, if you register to receive a vaccine at a pharmacy you will notice their website has wording indicating that those living in hot zones and facing higher risks are a priority. However, sometimes a pharmacy may have many doses and not enough appointments. So, like pop-ups, sometimes they open their doors to those living in non-hot zones and are not considered high risk. For example, I registered to receive my first dose with Shoppers Drug Mart and they contacted me last minute for an appointment noting that not enough people had booked at that location and they needed to use up all their doses before they expired. Consequently, I was fortunate to receive my first dose last Sunday. You might want to register with a pharmacy for a first dose appointment in case they have an opening for you. Here is the list of pharmacies offering Covid vaccines in Ontario: https://covid-19.ontario.ca/vaccine-locations

Update: you may have heard that 1st doses of AstraZeneca are being paused in Ontario. However, Pfizer 1st doses are available in specific pharmacies. Please check the above link for more information

If you get an opportunity to get vaccinated, you should take it. Likely, you are not taking away a vaccine from someone who needs it more, you might be receiving a dose that could have been thrown away. And you are helping the community put an end to this pandemic that has cost the lives of so many people.

On a happier note, I was very proud to see so many people of my generation X line up to get their AstraZeneca vaccines in pharmacies. It was also inspiring to see so many people in their 20’s get their vaccine now that the limit has been changed to 18+ for Pfizer. Many people of my generation wore the t-shirts of their favourite 80’s rock or New Wave bands as they lined up. I wore my favourite t-shirt, the jersey of the Peruvian national soccer team. Peru is the country where I was born, and as Eduardo Galeano, I am a “beggar for good soccer”. I am also a fan of volunteers running vaccine clinics, health care workers, and pharmacists who have given so much during these difficult times.

Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. ~ Eduardo Galeano

covid testing, Covid-19, Ontario, Parkdale - High Park, Public health, Public safety

More indoor workplace closures, less outdoor restrictions

Section 22 of Ontario’s Health Protection and Promotion Act gives medical officers of health the authority to close a workplace for a specified period:

https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90h07#BK27

The region of Peel has recently used this power to close workplaces where they have been Covid outbreaks affecting five or more employees:

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/peel-covid-businesses-closed-section-22-1.5994257

The evidence is clear that transmission is mostly occurring in indoor workplaces. Consequently, these new orders should help decelerate the spread of Covid.

Physically distant outdoor activities, on the other hand, should be encouraged not restricted, since they are relatively low risk. Furthermore, the rest of Ontario including T.O. needs to follow the lead of the region of Peel and close immediately workplaces where there have been Covid outbreaks. This action combined with other effective measures, such as paid sick leave, workplace health inspections, more testing and vaccinations will put an end to Ontario’s third wave. As always take care and stay safe.

Focus on indoor workplace transmissions

Update:

First the bad news, the public tennis courts in High Park are closed. The good news is that T.O. Public Health today announced it will close workplaces to manage Covid 19 outbreaks.

https://www.toronto.ca/news/toronto-public-health-issues-section-22-class-order-to-close-workplaces-to-manage-covid-19-outbreaks/

No description available.
The public tennis courts in High Park are closed.
Affordable Housing, Covid-19, Healthy Homes, Mental health, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

German city supports tiny shelters while T.O. takes legal action against them

The City of Ulm has embraced an innovation created by its residents: sleep pods for the homeless.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/55778733

Meanwhile in T.O. a similar project “Toronto Tiny Shelters” is facing legal action from the City.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/ont-homeless-encampments-1.5920822

In both Ulm and T.O. these projects originated thanks to very creative people who have a passion to assist others. The key difference is that the City of Ulm supported this project while our Mayor and Council not only did not support this visionary solution, they believe that taking to court someone who has made a positive difference in people’s lives during this pandemic is a good idea.

If you do not believe that, ask yourselves which Councillor right now is tweeting their support for Khaleel Seivwright the brilliant person behind this wonderful design? Also, which Councillor is going on record stating that this legal action should stop and instead the City should collaborate with the Toronto Tiny Shelters project? No one is and that is very disappointing.

The argument that Tiny Shelters are unsafe because they are made of wood is weak, since they are equipped with flame resistant materials, smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Also, many homes in T.O. are made of wood. And Ulm’s sleep pods are also made of wood.  Furthermore, the contention that Toronto Tiny Shelters is not following requirements is just as feeble. Governments can always make exemptions to bylaws and regulations when it is in the interest of the public, such as providing emergency shelter for the homeless during a pandemic. To those that argue that Tiny Shelters are not the answer to the complicated problem of homelessness take note that there is no one answer to this issue and Tiny Shelters as an emergency measure can save lives. The actual problem is we do not have leaders in Council who accept that often the best solutions to our problems come from members of the public, like Khaleel Seivwright.

To manage a crisis such as a pandemic both leadership and vision are required. By not supporting Toronto Tiny Shelters this Council has shown a lack of both. However, to end on a positive note Khaleel Seivwright and his team deserve our support. Please visit their website, thank you, and stay safe.

https://www.torontotinyshelter.org/

Ask Mayor Tory and your Councillor to support Toronto Tiny Shelters

covid testing, Covid-19, Public health

Rapid Covid Testing for LTC, Schools, and Workplaces

While the recent Covid news cycle focused on new travel restrictions and delays in receiving vaccines, under the radar was a January report by an expert panel that recommended the implementation of rapid Covid testing in the following places:

  • schools
  • work settings, and
  • communal living facilities e.g. Long-Term Care (LTC)

Here is the full report from the Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel:

Priority strategies to optimize testing and screening for COVID-19 in Canada: Report

https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/covid19-industry/medical-devices/testing-screening-advisory-panel/reports-summaries/priority-strategies.html

While new travel restrictions due to Covid variants are important, and so is having our population inoculated, there is still the problem of community transmission that was never properly addressed in Toronto and for that matter, Ontario. In fact, the UK variant is already in Ontario. And a new more contagious variant could result in more deaths. So, using rapid Covid testing in places that are at high risk for community transmission is a must.

Let me be perfectly clear, there is no excuse for not having widespread rapid testing already in place today in Ontario. Nova Scotia has been using rapid testing effectively months ago.

https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/nova-scotia-embraced-rapid-testing-for-covid-19-months-ago-why-have-other-provinces-been-so-slow

Furthermore, while it is encouraging to see some Canadian workplaces, such as Canada Post, recently embrace rapid Covid testing, a quick jurisdictional review shows that several international companies implemented Covid testing for their workers back in the spring, last year. For example, Canadian employers are way behind in Covid testing compared to a company in Manila that started testing their employees back in May 2020.

To those that believe that the accuracy of rapid Covid tests or Covid tests in general presents a problem note that scientifically no test is free from false positives or false negatives. And rapid Covid tests have been used effectively in Taiwan to beat Covid. Look where Taiwan is today (practically Covid zero) and look where we are today in Ontario and Canada, enough said.

To say that Ontario and Canada have been late in implementing widespread Covid testing is quite an understatement. So, it is time to drop our partisanship. If you are Conservative stop defending the Premier of Ontario. If you are Liberal stop defending the Prime Minister of Canada. They did not react with the focus and urgency that a crisis requires, and we need to hold them accountable. So, I may not have too much faith in our current political leaders, but I do have faith in you and our community. And I know we will demand better from now on, and pressure elected officials to put in place the necessary Covid testing in places where there is a high risk of transmission. Otherwise, due to more contagious variants, we could be facing a third wave that is even worse than the second wave. Stay safe.

Rapid Covid testing may prevent a 3rd wave

Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Blaming international travelers

Not every Canadian who gets on a plane is like Rod Phillips, the minister who went on a Caribbean vacation to only find himself upon his return like Luca Brasi in The Godfather: “swimming with the fishes”. The reality is that few countries are currently allowing international travelers into their borders. Several countries around the globe are only allowing their citizens to return or visit family. Consequently, airports around the world look like ghost towns, flights are rescheduled or cancelled daily. Pearson airport has never looked lonelier.

Some countries were starting to reopen their borders when suddenly the “it’s mutated” scene from the 2011 film Contagion became reality, and new more contagious strains of Covid started appearing around the globe. The new strains will likely put a stop to these reopening plans.

Yet, Premier Ford created a fictional enemy “the irresponsible partying international traveler” that is bringing new Covid strains to Canada. Several airlines already required all passengers to provide negative Covid test results before boarding, even before Minister Garneau announced requirements to provide negative tests. And several countries either test and or quarantine passengers upon arrival. And unlike Canada, they send people to quarantine facilities for three weeks with a tracking wristband, not their homes for two weeks with the ArriveCAN app. And now with the new strains, there probably will be more stringent testing requirements and longer quarantine periods for travelers worldwide. It seems that one of the only “partying international travelers” was his former Finance Minister.

While it makes sense to test passengers upon arrival and perhaps even consider longer quarantine periods for travelers, let’s not lose sight of the fact, that the main problem we have in Ontario is still local transmission. Shutting down Pearson will not address the root cause. Pearson is a ghost town these days anyway.

Hardly anyone is flying, so why blame international travelers?

Covid Alert, Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Toronto

Moving from aspirational to effective contact tracing

How many times have we heard the tune “Shoppers Drug Mart employee test positive for Covid-19 in the Junction”? What are we supposed to do with this information other than sharing it on Facebook hoping your friends who shop at that location are notified. But even if they are informed questions are raised. Which employee tested positive? Because if it was an employee solely moving boxes in storage the clients may not have much to worry about, but if it was someone working as cashier many clients would have been exposed. In summary, the problem with this scenario is that it is aspirational contact tracing. And it fails to answer a key question: how did that employee contract the virus?

https://dailyhive.com/toronto/shoppers-drug-mart-covid-19-december-18

Ideally, everyone who was in the building between the hours the employee worked should be notified of potential exposure. The Covid Alert app could help, but it would require that the employee who tested positive and those exposed have the app running on their smartphones. And since its adoption is voluntary and requires a newer smartphone not everyone has it. Hence this remarkable app should be seen as one of many ways to combat the pandemic and not a silver bullet.

As a Canadian who grew up abroad and has backpacked around our beautiful globe, I tend to ask myself: what else are other countries doing to solve this problem, which by now has affected every corner of the earth. 

Quick Response (QR) codes are effectively being used for contact tracing by businesses in Asia, Europe, and Oceania:

https://esnetwork.ca/briefings/qr-codes-as-an-approach-to-contact-tracing-for-covid-19/

On the local scene, a Canadian company has developed a QR code contact tracing solution to help businesses:

Based on the above study, QR code contact tracing solutions work best when managed by service providers for a specific transaction, for example, a movie night. So when you enter the theatre you would present your tickets and scan a QR code with your smartphone. Cineplex will not get your contact details, all they will see is a randomly generated identification code e.g. UserElVez has entered the theatre. Employees would scan the QR code when their shift begins. So, If Employee007 who later tests positive was working when UserElVez was in the theatre UserElVez would be automatically and confidentially notified of potential exposure. Naturally, all clients and employees who were in the theatre at the same time as Employee007 would also be notified. Since the movie is 2 hours long the system would automatically know when UserElVez left the building. 

Finding out how Employee007 contracted Covid might be best left to contact tracing professionals working for local public health units. However, notifying who may have been exposed by Employee007 at work to Covid can be automatically done by QR code systems, thus allowing contact tracers who are already overworked to focus on other critical matters.

QR code contact tracing is far superior to pen and paper which restaurants in T.O. were using in the summer for contact tracing since pen and paper can easily lead to privacy breaches. It is positive to see many local businesses adopt QR code solutions, but to be truly effective widespread adoption is needed. Here is a situation where local governments can take the lead and encourage the use of QR code contact tracing.

QR code contact tracing is more effective and secure than pen and pencil.
Covid-19, Ontario, Public health, Public safety, Toronto

Ontario needs paid pandemic leave

More than 7,600 workers in Ontario have contracted Covid in their workplace.

Reference: https://www.toronto.com/news-story/10293646-thousands-of-workers-got-covid-19-on-the-job-but-the-ministry-of-labour-has-fined-just-one-employer/

These numbers build a strong case that current sick leave policies are woefully inadequate especially during a pandemic. Certainly, having only 3 unpaid job-protected sick days (the Ontario minimum) is not sufficient in times of Covid, because behavioural psychology demonstrates that we are good at fooling ourselves into thinking that potential Covid symptoms might be just the start of a cold if the alternative is no pay or worse job loss. There is always pressure to work while sick.

Reference: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20161013-the-psychology-behind-the-subtle-pressure-to-work-when-sick

On the positive side, Ontario has effective parental leave policies that ensure employees are paid and their jobs are protected. Parental leave works well because the government covers the cost through employment insurance. A new paid pandemic leave programme could be modelled after parental leave policies. If we have parental leave why not pandemic leave?

Reference: https://www.ontario.ca/document/your-guide-employment-standards-act-0/pregnancy-and-parental-leave

To effectively reduce contagion in the workplace Ontario should implement a pandemic leave program that pays employees and protects their jobs when:

  1. They test positive for Covid,
  2. They are exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid or they have Covid symptoms and they are in isolation awaiting test results, or
  3. They need to stay home to take care of their children during school closures due to the pandemic.

Ontario needs paid pandemic leave, anything less, and sick employees will go to work, and contagion will continue. Some will argue that paid pandemic leave will be costly. My answer is that nobody argued that D-day was costly or that liberating Holland would burden us Canadians with debt. Despite all that is wrong we should remain hopeful that just like our foreparents overcame great obstacles, we will too.

Harbourfront, Toronto, Ontario, Canada