On June 10, 2021, Atin Ito Publisher Leonardo Santos spent close to 30 minutes speaking with Ms. Robin Martin, Member of Provincial Parliament representing Eglinton-Lawrence. She is also the Parliamentary Assistant to Ontario’s Minister of Health.
The provincial 3-step reopening plan has been set in motion starting Friday, June 11, 3 days ahead of plan due the favourable metrics of lower cases, lower hospital treatments and lower ICU admissions among others.
MPP Martin extensively explained what was expected to happen and the rationale for these. She also addressed a number of issues that have led to many criticisms of the Ford government’s pandemic response in the past weeks emanating from the political opposition as well as members of the medical community.
ATIN ITO: Good morning MPP Martin and thank you very much for spending part of your time today with us Ma’am.
RM: Good morning and how are you?
ATIN ITO: Very well, thank you. Before we begin, would you like to give a few opening remarks?
RM: Sure. I will just start by saying I am Robin Martin, the Member of Provincial Parliament in the riding of Eglinton-Lawrence. I am very delighted to have a very large Filipino community here in Eglinton-Lawrence. I think there are about 12-15% of the population in our riding and so it’s pretty big and a very important community, plays a big role in our riding.
The center for the Filipino Catholic church in Canada is Our Lady of the Assumption church which is on Bathurst, which is also in my riding as well. And I’ve been to many, many events there including packaging of goods to be sent back to the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan (“Yolanda”), which was several years ago but I spent a lot of time in the basement of the church with a lot of people from the neighbourhood packing help in boxes to be sent to people.
And I’ve known Rosemer Enverga and the former senator Jun Enverga for many years and also a number of other Filipino organizations in our community like the Filipino Canadian Community House and I go often to the Pinoy Fiesta down at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in and so I feel a strong attachment to the Filipino community and I want them to be more involved in politics frankly so that their interests can be better represented. And so I support Filipino candidates like Julius Tiangson who ran in York-Centre in the last elections.
ATIN ITO: Thank you very much on behalf of the Filipino community for the service and support not only of our issues in the country particularly with what has happened due to typhoons like Haiyan that hit the Philippines very gravely. It still is one of the strongest typhoons that world has seen in recent history. We do have a lot of those and unfortunately we are not as very well equipped as Canada to handle disasters such as those.
In your role as parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Health, let’s talk up about the provincial reopening plan which has already been set in motion. From the metrics that have been set at 60% vaccination rate, we are well above that already as far first doses in the arms of Ontarians.
RM: Yes, I think we were almost at that vaccination rate when they announced the plan and set that target but that isn’t the only thing the look at. They also look at ICU capacity, hospitalizations, etc. So there are a number of things that they have to look at but the vaccination rate really is a game changer as we all know. And so we are encouraging everybody to make sure that they get vaccinated for the first dose as soon as possible and get their second vaccine as soon as they’re eligible to do so. So that everybody can be protected and so we can get back to our normal lives.
ATIN ITO: And yes, so all systems go for tomorrow? At least for Step One of the partial reopening.
RM: Yes. I don’t know about you but I have my reservations for the patio on Friday night. My husband insisted right away. He said “we’ll go out on Friday night, on Saturday night.” Anything we can do really to support our local restaurants. I think we should all try to get out there. I know everybody wants to because it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to get out and enjoy ourselves. So definitely patios all weekend.
ATIN ITO: Yes. The metrics are down across everything. Vaccinations are up, Covid-19 cases have been down although there has been a slight uptick today from news reports, declines in hospitalizations, declines in ICU cases. So things are looking bright.
RM: They are finally. It’s been a very difficult year for everybody. We know that. Honestly, I think that a hundred years ago was the last time there was a global pandemic and it’s been a very, very difficult time for the government and also for everybody to deal with.
And unfortunately, our weather in Ontario which is not as nice as the Philippines most of the time or the southern United States like Florida. The weather is also an important factor for Covid-19. I asked Dr. Lawrence Loh, the Chief Medical Officer of Health for Peel Region when we were in the first wave. “Why does everybody say we’ll have a second wave in the fall?” He said “well, because people go inside.” And so, we have to remember that in a weather environment like we have here in Ontario, we have to wait until we can get outside to get some of the benefits of the “out of doors” where Covid is much less transmissible outside than it is inside. So places like Florida and even British Columbia had nicer weather before we did. I think 2 weeks ago maybe that it was 10 degrees or 7 degrees here in Toronto. And so that is part of the problem. Going outside will help us with the reopening and making the spread of Covid less likely because being outside is safer. Everybody knows that.
ATIN ITO: So it’s looking like the 3-step plan that Ontario has adopted is going according to plan and perhaps might even be accelerated. There’s a 21 day gap between steps but of course there are dependencies of course on the number of cases we get and so forth and so on. What is your view? Are we opening the economy much faster?
RM: Well, we’re a bit faster already going into Step 1 on June 11th not June 14 as we initially expected. So that will also speed us steps 2 and 3. The Chief Medical Officer of Health is fairly adamant that he wants 21 days between each step. So they all will be a little advanced when we start on June 11th but not a lot advanced. The reason is because we need to have time to see what the rates of transmissions, what the rates of hospitalization are, etc. He needs to get the data. He needs to review the data and he needs to make sure that we’re headed in the right direction before we move to more expanded activities that may cause more transmission. And he needs to make sure that we’re not in a situation where the transmission rates are going to start to skyrocket.
The other factor is the delta variant or the Indian variant before, which is here in Ontario now. The largest number of cases may be in Peel or up north in the Porcupine district I think. But it is a more transmissible variant and those things can take off pretty quickly if they start to get in to the community more broadly. So that is kind of the factor that’s a little bit out there that we have to keep an eye on. Between the second and third wave, we managed to conquer Covid original and all of those cases were way down and hospitalizations started to go down from those cases just as the variant which is called the UK variant started to skyrocket, For the third wave, almost entirely all cases were from the UK variant. So, we don’t want that to happen again. Nobody wants to move backwards. We want to move forward to reopening and getting past this pandemic. And so that is why the cautious approach but I am sure the Chief Medical Officer of Health will continue to review all the numbers and if we can move forward quicker, I think we’d all like to see that.
ATIN ITO: Well, there have been a lot of political interchanges if you like that basically pointed to the federal government at one point as far as the airports and borders are concerned, and as far the handling relative to consultations with medical experts as and the science table. What are your insights as far as those are concerned?
RM: Sure. Well, obviously all the three levels of government need to work together during a pandemic and we all have different responsibilities assigned to us under the constitution. The provincial government has no control over borders, over quarantine rules, over air travel of any kind including domestic air travel. All of those things are controlled by the federal government. And of course every case of Covid comes from a case that came from outside of this country and in to this country. And every case that is a variant of concern came from outside of this country in to this country. None of them were originated here in Canada or in Ontario. And so, as we’re trying to get control of our cases, it’s very important that we don’t let variants of concern come across the border because those are the things that are causing the hiccups in our reopening. They certainly caused a big hiccup even worse, a big problem with our third wave because that was all variants of concern which if we hadn’t had them here would not have been a problem. And you know, this is the one factor that’s scaring us now with the reopening is the delta variant as I said.
With respect to listening to the science, the government has been clear. The entire time, we have listened to the science. The Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, Dr. David Williams was appointed by the prior government, the Ontario Liberal government that existed before to advise the government on pandemics, on public health emergencies. So, we would be very criticized if we did not listen to the one person appointed to give us advice in this situation who is Dr. Williams. So we have always listened to him, always worked very carefully with him and Dr. Williams himself takes advice from many other doctors. There’s a group called the Public Health Measures Table which is composed of chief medical officers of health and former chief medical officers of health from all over the province and there are a number of other tables. There is the critical care table that does hospital capacities and many, many others.
There’s the vaccine distribution taskforce which has infectious disease specialists on it. So there are so many doctors advising. And of course, Dr. Williams listens to what all of these people have to say.
The Ontario science table, I think is a voluntary self-appointed group of doctors who call themselves the Ontario Science Table. They have a website where they post information and their opinions. They also post on Twitter and have media interviews. The Ontario government has relied on Dr. Steini Brown (Adalsteinn “Steini” Brown) to provide modelling advice and data and he is a member of the Science Table and so he has given a press conference where he’s explained what they were projecting from the modelling what our case numbers would be and that is the official link between the Ontario government and the Ontario Science Table.
Obviously, we listen to the advice of all of the doctors. They’re all very intelligent but they don’t always all agree. It’s an art as much as a science I think in so far as the public policy initiatives that we should take. Obviously, we listen to the scientists but we need to figure out how people will respond to achieve the objectives we are looking for, etc.
And so it’s really working together between public health doctors and politicians to try and get it right for Ontario. And I think we’re there. We’re coming out of this now and would we have liked to do that sooner? Absolutely. It’s been really, really hard for everybody but the point is to get there safely with as little damage as possible to Ontario and the people of Ontario. We have a very, very low death rate here in Ontario and that’s good. We also have lower illness rates because some people who had Covid have impacts that last longer and we want to minimize that. We don’t want people left with impacts that will affect their lives forever. We’re going to do everything we can to prevent that and I think our government has struck the right measures to make that the case and to protect the lives of all Ontarians.
ATIN ITO: There are 2 comments regarding your response. First is on the borders. The US and Canada are now talking very seriously about reopening borders. The federal government is looking forward to reopening the borders with the United States notwithstanding the continuing advertisements of your party with respect to the borders, specifically with airports not being closed, etc.
Secondly, even with the consultations with the medical community, there were still a lot of criticisms from the medical community itself regarding how the pandemic was managed. The “stay at home” order that didn’t seem to be a not so well thought out approach as far as the doctors were concerned because the cases were rising and in fact, even other provinces were helping with medical care in the province relative to Covid. And not only from other provinces but from the military as well in some cases. All these were the subjects of political bickering. Is this simply political bickering? Or is there substance to these?
RM: Just briefly with respect to the borders, I mean I think what we’ve had are the worst of all worlds on our borders right now because we’ve had restrictions that are very inconvenient for people but also not effective. So I don’t think that’s good. I think we need effective restrictions to keep out potentially dangerous variants of concern. Now, the vaccinations is a game changer in every way for Covid and so hopefully, when everybody is vaccinated, these issues are not nearly as important but right now, we’re still trying to make sure that we don’t have any more waves and that’s why we’re so adamant that we need effective border controls. Places that have effective border controls like Australia for example, which is otherwise fairly comparable to this country have had much lower case rates, much fewer lockdowns and that’s what everybody wants.
With respect to the disagreement with doctors, I think what people should recognize, one that I certainly recognize, is that you can have people who are very well educated and experts in a particular subject who all don’t agree. And there’s no end of opinions on issues even from the people that are educated. And that’s why that the person that the Ontario listens to is the Chief Medical Officer of Health principally because he is the person appointed to give us this kind of advice.
Now, we’ve appointed a new chief medical officer to take over by the end of June, Dr. Kieran Moore who was the Chief Medical Officer in Kingston. And I’m sure he shall do an excellent job but Dr. Williams has carried us through this whole pandemic. Were there doctors that disagreed with any of the decisions? Yes, absolutely there were. And there were lots of opinions on each of the decisions we made. But you know Dr. Williams and the government have made hundreds of decisions and these were every day during this pandemic and we’ve explained and we’ve been in front of cameras every day and the Premier, the Chief Medical Officer of Health and the Minister of Health explaining why things have been done the way they have and we’ve certainly listened to the opinions of other doctors and you’re never going to have one answer from all of the doctors. You’re going to have a range of opinions so you still have to decide what to do. And I think, you know that if we can explain why and it makes sense, then that’s as justified as we can be. We’re listening to the man who was appointed to give us advice and I think that is really what a government has to do in the circumstances.
Obviously, we’ll look back at this and we’ll ask if we could have done better in this particular decision or that. Because we know more now. You know Covid-19 has been evolving the entire time we’ve been governing through the pandemic. That requires constant learning and adaptation and changes sometimes because okay now we know something different, we’ve learned something different, we can react differently.
So one of the things you mentioned was hospital capacity. I think that’s an issue we need to look at after the pandemic is over. We have increased our hospital ICU capacity I think by 14% during the pandemic which is not easy to do and that’s about the equivalent of 3 medium sized hospitals’ ICU capacity and that is significant to mount. Does it mean that we have as much ICU capacity here as in the US? No we don’t. And so the issue is do we need more ICU capacity? And I think we need to look at that issue. Certainly that was a problem in the second and third waves making us have a lockdown sooner than we might otherwise have.
Having said that, I heard an interview from the minister of the UK government and he said something to the effect of no health system has unlimited health capacity. And we saw in the first wave that even in places like New York, Tennessee, I believe Florida but certainly Italy, Spain, everybody’s ICU’s were overwhelmed. Ours came later. It didn’t happen until the second and third waves but it did happen. And so, what it the right amount of ICU capacity. You don’t want to have too much idle capacity sitting there not being used but you want to have enough. And that’s certainly something we have to look at.
I think there are lots of things that we have learned during this pandemic that will lead to changes in the future in our healthcare system and otherwise to make sure that we’re better prepared to respond next time and you don’t want to be playing catch up in the middle of the pandemic. You want to have all the personal protective equipment that you need, you want to have the testing capacity you need, you want to have the ICU capacity you need. There’s all kinds of things that we can learn and make sure we have in place to make sure that we’re better protected next time.
ATIN ITO: Oh, it’s never an easy task for sure notwithstanding the ability of a healthcare system to effectively counteract a pandemic. Yes there are many areas that are going to be looked at for sure by any government but then on the vaccination front which you yourself said is a game changer, the Premier had mentioned early on that he was targeting that all Ontarians who wanted to get vaccinated be given their first dose by the end of June. How is the province measuring up against that target?
RM: Yes and we probably offered first doses to everybody already. Not everybody will probably get vaccinated. You always have some people who for whatever reason, they may have a health reason or otherwise cannot get vaccinated. But we’re pretty close. We have a very high first dose vaccination rate already. I would say that we’ve probably already hit that target in a sense.
You know there’s a lot of snowbirds coming in here as well as from the United States and a lot of people have gotten vaccinated in the United States. Those vaccinations are not yet accounted for in our numbers but our system that takes the vaccine data can account for those. And so, we will get those into our system. I suspect that with those, we may be closer to 80% vaccinations with first doses. We’re 72% otherwise, right now. So we will somewhere in there and so that’s pretty good. Better than the US and a number at other places and I know that looking at our data for the older people in the 80+ category, are like 94% vaccinated. It goes down a bit with every level but I think I saw recently even for those 12-17 years old whom we just started vaccinating recently, about 40% are vaccinated already with their first dose.
ATIN ITO: The younger generation seems to be more excited about getting vaccinated than the older people are.
RM: Yeah. Maybe excited more about getting back to life.
ATIN ITO: Well, MPP Martin, thank you very much for your time but before I let you go, any closing remarks you would like to share with the public?
RM: Yeah, well I just wanted to say thank you so much for having me and I’m certainly delighted to talk to you about these issues. I know people have a lot of questions. We’re certainly hoping that we have 2 doses of vaccines to everybody by the September date and I think we’re going to get there. I am hoping that by that point we are waving goodbye to this pandemic. Because I know that everybody would like to do that and try to get back to normal and get our lives back on track. So have a great summer is what I’d like to say to everybody. Enjoy it. I know everybody needs a break.
ATIN ITO: MPP Martin, thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate your participation in today’s interview.
RM: My pleasure Leonardo. Thank you.
ATIN ITO: All the best and stay safe.
RM: You too. Bye bye.
Publisher’s Note: Atin Ito welcomes any reactions, any other relevant information and submissions from all interested parties regarding the contents of this article. Please email us at info@AINewsMediaOne.com.
About Robin Martin
Robin Martin is the Member of Provincial Parliament for Eglinton-Lawrence, a riding in which she has lived in for over 20 years. In addition to her role as MPP, she serves as Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Health and is a member of the Standing Committee on Social Policy, Standing Committee on Government Agencies, and the Select Committee on Emergency Management Oversight. Robin has also served on the Select Committee on Financial Transparency.
Ms. Martin holds a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Toronto. Prior to that, she earned her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from McGill University, studying overseas for a year at the L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris as part of her masters program. She practiced litigation for over a decade at Osler and Lenczner. She has also worked as a policy advisor for the Ontario Ministry of Health.
At a personal level, Robin has been married for more than 30 years to her high school sweetheart, Jon Martin, and has a son and a daughter.
About Leonardo Santos:
Leonardo Santos is a graduate of the University of the Philippines with B.S. Industrial Engineering and Master of Business Administration (MBA) degrees. He has had a number of professional and leadership roles in a number of IT and Telecommunications companies in the Philippines prior to becoming a Permanent Resident of Canada.