There was no doubt in Dr. Ian Arra's mind in January that COVID-19 would reach pandemic proportions.
“You do the math on the characteristic of the bug and it is identical to the Spanish Flu in 1918. I had no doubt in my mind, this is going to be a pandemic,” Arra, the medical officer of health for the Grey Bruce region, said as he reflected on the first time he spoke to the board of health in January.
“I knew it was going to be an emergency but it's difficult to comprehend how an emergency of this calibre is going to unfold.”
With the understanding that a pandemic was on route, Arra assembled his team and began the challenge of raising awareness in the region.
Today, the Grey Bruce Health Unit (GBHU) remains one of the only regions in the province that has not had one COVID-related death.
“During the mitigation period, in March and April, our team was working on pandemic reopening plans,' said Arra. "Some organizations or health units might have waited for the Ministry to say this is the plan. But if we wanted to be proactively prepared to hit the ground running when we got the green light for the first stage reopening, we needed to have those plans.”
Arra said the positive outcomes in the region are due to several factors, including having a concerned, informed and engaged public body, having robust public health protocols in place, and a strong political commitment to health.
“Local political commitment to health – including members of parliament and both the provincial and municipal governments - has been very powerful and emergency response was optimal,” he said.
He adds that local journalism has also played an important role in the GBHU’s pandemic response.
“The local media provided information to the public in a very effective way for people to make the decision that is best for them and their family situation,” he said.
Arra also points to strong community partnerships that have provided a much-needed helping hand.
“Emergencies bring people together. We have seen both businesses and individuals volunteering their time or their resources,” he said.
He specifically points to Bruce Power, which has donated thousands of PPE items over the past 10 months. As well as Chapman’s Ice Cream, who recently assisted the health unit in acquiring the proper freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19.
Prior to COVID-19 hitting the region, Arra says GBHU was a victim of its own success.
“If we do our jobs right, no one hears about us,” Arra said. “Oftentimes, it takes a crisis to wake up the system to the importance of public health.”
He says the role of public health is to prevent people from getting sick, whereas the role of the healthcare system is to react to those who are sick.
“I think of the healthcare system similar to home or auto insurance. We buy it, we want it to be strong, but we hope we'll never use it,” he said.
When it comes to his role as MOH, Arra says there is no doubt his role changed since last year.
“But, this is what I was trained for and it feels good to be in-demand and to be able to produce,” he said.
Like many in the healthcare field, Arra has been working long hours since January. He says it has been a struggle to maintain an acceptable balance between leading the local pandemic response and being home with his wife and young daughter.
“I lost that balance in March and my daughter was missing out on her dad,” he said. “So I adjusted my schedule to work until five, go home until 7:30 or 8 and go back to work until midnight.”
He knows he is not alone in working those long hours.
“What has stuck with me most through this emergency is the human element. It's not like I was blind to it, but I have really seen how important it is to take care of the team first so they can take care of everybody else.”
Arra says each member of staff at GBHU has seen a shift in their job duties and every department has stepped up.
“My role was actually not to push them to do more, my role was to actually slow them down,” he said. “It's really impressive how people could be committed to that degree. I've never felt privileged and honoured to be part of a team more than this team.”
Looking forward to the new year, Arra says he is hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.
“I am confident that in 2021 we will have a lot of things to look forward to. And, the progress of the vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “However, in the coming weeks, it's essential for us to continue our efforts to save lives and livelihood.”
Jennifer Golletz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca