This guy knows how to avoid a worst-case scenario second wave this winter

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His name is Amol Verma, and he runs the Covid-19 Hospital Analytics Lab at U of T

Your team at U of T’s Covid-19 Hospital Analytics Laboratory focuses on improving the clinical, organizational and systemic responses to Covid. What does that mean?
It means using the billions of data points generated in hospitals every day to improve care and outcomes, both for people with Covid and for everyone else who comes into the hospital. Once we have the data, we can interrogate it. What kinds of treatments have been successful? What kinds of resources do we need more of? These are questions data can answer with far greater speed and accuracy than any person.

How does this help us approach Covid specifically?
Well, for example, data can help us better understand the optimal time to put a Covid patient on a ventilator. Or it can help us cut down on the bottlenecks in hospitals. My team is also looking at the impact of delayed treatments for people who were dealing with non-Covid medical issues. If we learn, for example, that interrupted care for patients with diabetes led to more leg amputations over the summer, that will help us know what services to prioritize in future waves of Covid.

On top of all that, you’re also an internist at St. Mike’s. Presumably you haven’t slept much.
That’s right. My wife is also a physician, and we have a two-year-old daughter at home, so it’s been a lot. Back in March, I had no idea what I was walking into—some of my colleagues and I even bought gas masks because we were worried about running out of PPE. But that’s what we signed up for.

When you think of how freaked you were back then, and where we are today, is it better? Worse?
There’s a lot we’ve done right. We came together as a society to bring caseloads down, and it worked. Over the summer, there was a bit of a reprieve, which was important. People can only stay in lockdown for so long.

But is our reprieve to blame for the current situation?
Pandemics are cyclical by nature, so the fact that we’re in a second wave doesn’t mean we did anything wrong. The crucial question is: how did we use that reprieve? We’re seeing reports coming out now that we didn’t use it well in terms of managing our lab testing capacity, or by increasing ventilation in schools and reducing class sizes.

So what does our worst-case scenario look like?
When you look at the 1918 flu, the first wave in the spring was similar to what we experienced. And then their second wave was a lot worse. The difference is that we know how to dance with our virus. We know exactly what it is and how it spreads, we’ve developed tests and treatments that have been deployed rapidly around the world. People will be talking in history books about the dazzling scientific achievements we’ve made in response to Covid-19. What we need now is decisive leadership.

Meaning our government needs to get its act together?
Well, the message from our leaders was that casinos, restaurants and banquet halls could be open but we weren’t supposed to socialize outside our household. That’s pretty confusing. In Toronto, we need targeted, focused restriction on high-risk indoor activities while we get our numbers under control.

What do you say to people who want to keep the economy open?
Controlling the virus is the best economic strategy. Our government needs to step in and help small businesses, whether it’s restaurants or strip clubs.

What are your Covid stress-relieving strategies? Are you one of those weirdos who watch pandemic movies?
Ha! No, I like to keep my entertainment non-medical. The only TV I’ve watched was the Raptors. I’m chasing my toddler around. She loves to cook, so I’ll make something on the stove and she will do the same in her IKEA kitchen. She wants to make rice pudding because her grandparents make it and she misses them. It’s very touching. And luckily, boiling rice and milk is within my skill set.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.