In the intensive care unit at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital, Dr. Michael Warner sees some of the city’s sickest COVID-19 patients. He also sees the inequity that is putting young, essential workers from marginalized communities at the highest risk.
“I see these people dying and I see their families watch them die on Zoom,” said Warner, “and now more than ever, the unfairness of the situation is so in my face.”
Warner, a Class of 1996 alumnus and the Medical Director of Critical Care at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital, is the 2021 recipient of Crescent School’s Alumni Excellence Award, which honours alumni who have distinguished themselves in their professional careers, personal endeavors, and community service. He was the featured guest at Crescent’s Alumni Speaker Series event on April 6, 2021, interviewed via Zoom by Class of 2004 alumnus Dr. Hussein Jaffer, Diagnostic and Interventional Radiologist at William Osler Health System.
They noted that Ontario is now in Wave 3 of the pandemic, and that the emerging COVID-19 variants are much more serious than the “classic COVID” of Spring 2020. Patients are getting sicker, faster, and the patients are younger too. The disease is now spreading fastest in workplaces and neighbourhoods where people can’t work from home or self-isolate easily.
“Which is why the next two months, while we wait for more people to get vaccinated, are really important and why we probably now need to sacrifice more than we did even in preparing for Wave 1,” said Warner.
Warner told the audience of Crescent alumni, parents and faculty: “If you own a factory, if you own a business, whether it’s essential or non-essential workers, you make sure those workers are protected. If they can work from home, they must work from home. If rapid testing isn’t mandatory in the factory that you own, you get the rapid testing and you make sure your factory workers are tested before they go to work so they are safe. You provide paid sick leave, even if the government doesn’t mandate it, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Warner gained media attention in March 2020 for an email message that he sent to his entire contact list, warning that extreme measures of social distancing and shutdowns were needed in Canada to prepare for the threat of COVID-19.
He said the response to that email message made him realize that “I want to have an impact beyond the walls of my ICU.”
Warner was instrumental in organizing a drive that collected personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies for long-term care homes. Since then, through Twitter posts and media interviews, Warner has become a prominent advocate for a more effective response to the pandemic. He is now a community-based physician representative at the COVID-19 Provincial Critical Care table advising Ontario Health on all Critical Care related to COVID-19. In April 2021, as Wave 3 of the COVID-19 variant was swamping the hospitals, he began sharing on Twitter, with the patients’ permission, stories that revealed the heart-wrenching experiences behind the pandemic’s statistics.
Warner said he hopes the stories he’s shared are helping to shift the balance of public opinion.
While many people want life to return to normal, he said, other people “are still dying because they cannot minimize their exposure risk, because the work they do that we’ve defined as essential.”
He noted that he has been “hammering” the point that Ontario’s vaccine rollout needs to be adapted to protect young essential workers from the COVID-19 variant.
“The fact that there’s innumerable pharmacies on Yonge Street where you can line up, if you’re retired, to get a vaccine is not the right way to do things because the essential workers, the ones that are in my ICU, are actually prioritized last,” Warner said. “We need to bring the vaccines to the factories, to Thorncliffe Park, Jane and Finch, Scarborough, Peel, North Etobicoke, and vaccinate everybody over 18.”
(The Ontario government announced on April 6 that it is expanding its vaccine distribution to begin reaching people in Toronto and Peel Region neighbourhoods that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.)
As for what people should do while they are waiting for vaccinations, Warner had a simple answer: stay home.
“It’s actually really easy when you think about the alternative, which is dying on a ventilator,” said Warner. “Just stay home and watch Netflix and do your work on Zoom. It sounds simple and I’m being a little bit curt, but it’s really not that bad.”Watch the recording of Dr. Warner and Dr. Jaffer's April 6th Zoom discussionLearn more about Crescent School Alumni