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Omicron is out to get me

Left JAB by John Bell

December 30, 2021

This time its personal. When it comes to the ultra-transmissible new COVID variant – omicron – I have a big target on my back. Omicron is out to get me.

I’m the tiptop of the vulnerability pyramid. I’m an organ transplant recipient. I’m elderly. The medication I must take daily to stop my body from rejecting my lungs has the side effect of destroying my kidneys. So I have to go to Toronto’s biggest hospital 3 times per week for life sustaining dialysis treatment to cleanse my blood and remove excess liquid from my body.

The dialysis clinic at said hospital is the site of a COVID omicron outbreak. Which means that 3 times a week I get to play Russian roulette. My last visit there were, to my count, 5 dialysis patients (the clinic holds about 30) with COVID. Isolation curtains are drawn around them in what is likely a vain attempt to give them the life-sustaining treatment they need while protecting the rest of us from exposure.

Now comes news that labour shortages caused by exposure to COVID omicron, and obeying instructions to isolate for 10 days, threaten collapse of our health system. The Quebec government has announced that it will allow health workers who test positive for COVID but are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms to go back to work. Sick doctors and nurses caring for vulnerable patients? What could go wrong.

Other measures are on the table: reducing the period of isolation to seven days, or maybe 5 days. To be clear, these are not discussions restricted to health services. Airlines, forced to cancel flights because attendants and pilots are in isolation, are pushing for a 5 day quarantine limit. The determining factor is not public health, but the labour needs of industry.

If Ontario chooses any of these options for our beleaguered health system, the risks I face in dialysis increase sharply.

Normalizing death and destruction

Through all these adventures I am intimately familiar with our healthcare system, its strengths and weaknesses. A lot of my experience is pre-pandemic, so I’ve witnessed the changes COVID crisis has wrought. It isn’t pretty.

Once, I had cause to spend almost a month in the ICU. The patient to nurse ratio in ICU is supposed to be 2 to 1. When I was there (pre-COVID) the reality was 3 to 1, or sometimes more on night shift. I occasionally witnessed scenes where supervisors pleaded with nurses to work extra hours or give up days off.

Today, my nurse confidants tell me, the shortage of ICU nurses means the workload for those remaining has doubled. You can’t replace ICU nurses with the snap of a finger. These are highly trained specialists bearing immense responsibility. Burnout is enough of a problem without a culture of overwork and austerity. Add the pressures of COVID, and the flight of trained nurses is understandable.

The occasional scenes of supervisors begging, cajoling and threatening nurses are now almost daily occurrences. Good-bye gatherings for nurses retiring or quitting are regular. Frustration, fatigue and, truth be told, inexperienced staff being saddled with responsibility above their ability or training, creates a literally toxic workplace. 

Nurses everywhere have become experts in spotting hypocrisy, none more so than Ontario nurses. For two years or more they have endured a government boss that heaps praise on them at every opportunity, and then uses emergency powers to pass a law (Bill 124) ripping the guts out of their contracts, and damning them to annual raises of 1%. With today’s inflation rate that is real pay cut of 3% to 4%.

I happened to be in the midst of dialysis treatment the day Doug Ford announced that he hoped health workers would volunteer to staff inoculation clinics in the lead-up to Christmas. There was a group of nurses conferring nearby, so I had the pleasure of conveying the Premier’s request for free labour to them.

Their initial reaction: a literal roar of laughter.

Then came the rage, as they complained about their overwork and bad pay. One told me her home life was a shambles because she went home too tired to take care of domestic chores.

I have utmost respect for nurses. I literally trust them with my life. But now I have to wonder if this person assigned to care for me will be the one to infect me, and given my condition pose a mortal danger.

Obviously I don’t blame frontline health workers. I do blame governments, like Ford’s Tory regime, because they decided months ago that they would do the absolute minimum to contain the disease, and prioritize keeping business going as near to normal as possible. Although they don’t come right out and say so, all of their efforts have been to normalize the death and destruction COVID brings.

Another path could have blunted the wildfire spread of omicron. It would have meant serious lockdowns. It would have meant total cancelation of big events like pro sports matches. It would have meant the cancelation of all modes of travel for all but essential purposes. But that would have jeopardized the retail frenzy of Christmas on which our economy seems to depend.

Sometime the mask slips. In August, in the lead-up to reopening schools, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer said the time has come to “normalize” COVID in schools. Normalizing the disease is a lot cheaper than making schools – yes, and all other workplaces – safe for students, teachers and other workers.

Normalization means that every twist and turn of public health measures is met with a wave of interviews by pizzeria owners, or gym personal trainers, complaining that their livelihoods are threatened. Absent are stories about “long COVID”, the long-term health problems many recovering COVID patients face: cognitive issues, inflamed joints and chronic fatigue. Invisible are stories about the people who die each day – we never learn their names.

All of this tells me that my government is willing to sacrifice my health and possibly my life – and the health and lives of tens of thousands of people with compromised immune systems and other issues – to maintain business as usual. This is not exaggeration. 

I head to hospital this afternoon for 4 hours of essential dialysis treatment. I will be exposed to fellow patients who have COVID. I may be treated by health workers who are COVID positive. It is not a question of if I get omicron; it is a question of when. And when I do get it, will my immune-compromised body be able to fight it off.

One thing is certain, if COVID kills me, you’ll never learn my name. That is not acceptable to me.


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