COVID-19 anniversary: ​​Toronto’s top doctor reflects on three years of the pandemic

It was three years ago today that officials confirmed the first “presumptive” case of COVID-19 in Ontario.

It involved a man in his 50s who had returned from Wuhan, China earlier in the week and was taken to Sunnybrook Hospital after becoming ill and calling 911.

At the time then Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams told reporters at a hastily-called press conference at Queen’s Park that the “risk to Ontarians is still low and things are managed and well-controlled.”

But within weeks the virus had started to spread widely, prompting the Ontario government to declare a state of emergency on March 17.

Businesses were soon shuttered, people were urged to work from home and daily media briefings with Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa and Mayor John Tory soon became appointment viewing.

CP24.com spoke with de Villa on the three-year anniversary of Ontario’s – and Canada’s – first COVID-19 case about those early days of the pandemic and when she knew that we were in for the long haul.

Here is what she had to say:

CP24: So back in early 2020 I think a lot of people felt like we just had to hunker down for a few months and this would go away. But given your background in infectious diseases did you know then that we were in fact going to have to find a way to live with this in the long term.

From Villa: My colleagues and I knew that the potential was there for a longer term, longer haul event. But I think there was still hope that it could be contained, especially in the very early days. If you remember in Wuhan they had basically shut down an entire region, not just the city, and I think there was some hope at that time that there might be an opportunity to contain the situation. But of course with the benefit of hindsight we now know that people had visited the area and then traveled from that area to other parts of the world and by February and early March we were seeing the situations in Northern Italy and New York City. So sure, in the very, very early days you know the possibility exists with a new and emerging infection (for it to be a long-lasting pandemic). But I think we all had hope that there might be an opportunity to contain and it wasn’t until you started to understand how significant the spread has been, where the disease had already gone and what kind of foothold it had that you really started to understand what the potential for a true pandemic was.

CP24: What do you remember about that first press conference, where you and several colleagues gathered in front of the cameras and announced that COVID-19 had arrived in Ontario?

From Villa: It was a Saturday afternoon. I actually remember I was out for a walk in the winter and I got a call from my colleague, who was the on call physician for the day, saying ‘hey, we have our first confirmed case.’ From there we had to move into action. Of course at Toronto Public Health we are used to dealing with notifications of reportable diseases and infectious diseases of public health significance. So there was a whole process (already in the place). We knew of COVID and we were readying ourselves for exactly this kind of thing. But of course there’s the theory and then there’s when it really hits. As soon as I got the call it was clear that we were going to have to make an announcement, have a press conference and work with out partners, including the ones at Public Health Ontario who run the public health lab. So the rest of that afternoon became about getting ready and heading downtown to be part of the press conference. It was the beginning of a lot of time spent in front of a camera.

CP24: Yeah, COVID-19 really thrust you into a spotlight in a way that was probably unfamiliar. Was that difficult, going from someone who did much their work behind the scenes to really the public face for the city’s efforts to contain the virus?

From Villa: Yeah that was a very significant change. Obviously from time to time, you know, in the course of public health work, local public health work, we find ourselves in front of the news media and in front of cameras but certainly not at the level that we saw and that we experienced during COVID. There was a period of time where it was daily news conference to update people and even when it wasn’t daily it was every other day. And I think the challenging part is not only making that shift but doing so in an environment where it is an emerging infectious disease, so we are actively learning while we are explaining and that is challenging. But I hope that people appreciate that we, and myself in particular, provided the best knowledge we had at the time while recognizing that things will change and that as your knowledge deepens your understanding changes and sometimes the messages have to change as well. That is not easy for anybody to understand, including for us. You know when you learn a new subject you have an understanding of something and then over time this information comes and it changes. And you realize ‘Yes, I see now how what I understood before may not be quite right.’ But that’s not easy to communicate. I think that was really one of the most challenging parts, is actually communicating that effectively.

CP24: Do you ever think about what the last few years may have looked like without vaccination? When COVID-19 was first detected there was really no track record of a vaccine being produced for a novel diseases so quickly.

From Villa: Oh, sure. This was a modern miracle of science and I don’t even know how to put into words how grateful I am that this was possible. As much as nobody wants a pandemic if it had to happen, I am glad it happened in a time when we actually had the technology (MRNA vaccines). It had been in development for years and years prior to this and it was available for our use so quickly. As I recall COVID was first sequenced on January 12, 2020 and then literally Dec. 14 – there are certain dates just printed in your mind – Dec. 14 was the very first day a vaccine was administered here in Toronto. So in the same calendar year we already had a safe and effective vaccine to help protect us. That is a miracle. That is a testament to modern science and there is no question it has saved lives and prevented illness, countless. That is the hard part of prevention. It is so hard to characterize what didn’t happen. But I think when we look at other jurisdictions who were less successful in terms of their ability to roll out and get a vaccine taken up by the population you can see how much more impacted they were both in terms of serious illness and notably in terms of deaths related to COVID-19.

CP24: Looking ahead, will COVID-19 continue to be a sort of part of the daily discourse. Are we ever going to get to a point where we stop marking these anniversaries?

From Villa: COVID-19 will be in our environment for the long haul. How long it stays part of our daily discourse I think a lot of that is up to us. We have more knowledge. I’m not going to tell you we have perfect knowledge but we have growing knowledge every single day in respect of COVID and we have these remarkable tools and resources available to us to help protect ourselves and those around us, especially those who are most vulnerable , if you will, to the serious outcomes of COVID-19. So to my mind, the more we’re able to use our knowledge and tools to good effect, the sooner the discourse becomes less prominent because it doesn’t have to be prominent anymore. We’ve got a lot of power in our hands and I think, you know, as a testament to Torontonians we’ve demonstrated that we can really work together to protect ourselves and especially those who are most vulnerable. So I continue to be amazed by what we’ve been able to achieve as a city altogether. And I don’t mean that just as officials in public health or government. I mean that as a city as a whole, all of us together.

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