A member of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has resigned after he ended a holiday vacation that started in mid-December and included a trip to the Dominican Republic.
Dr. Tom Stewart was listed as a member of the Command Table, often mentioned by Premier Doug Ford in media briefings.
The group consists of scientific experts and health system leaders who evaluate and report on emerging evidence relevant to the pandemic, to inform Ontario’s response.
The Ministry of Health confirmed the resignation to CBC News in an email statement late Tuesday.
“Helen Angus, Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Health, has accepted Dr. Tom Stewart’s resignation from the Health Coordination Table, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, and the LTC Incident Management System Table,” read the ministry’s statement.
“The people of Ontario have made countless sacrifices during the pandemic and it remains critically important that everyone continues to follow public health advice. We all have a part to play to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
Stewart is also the CEO of St. Joseph’s Health System and Niagara Health System.
Patrick Moore, the senior public affairs specialist at St. Joe’s, told CBC News via email, Dr. Tom Stewart was on approved vacation from Friday, Dec. 18 until Tuesday.
“I regret this non-essential travel and I’m sorry,” read a quote attributed to Stewart. “Everyone should be avoiding non-essential travel now, including me.”
“As a health system leader, my actions in no way reflect the tireless dedication and commitment of the staff at St. Joseph’s Health System, who continue to live the legacy of our organization every day.”
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It’s unclear who approved the vacation and why Stewart was allowed to leave the country. It’s also unclear how many of his vacation days were spent in the Dominican Republic and if he has returned to Canada.
Moore said the CEO will isolate at home for two weeks. He’s been CEO since Aug. 1, 2018.
St. Joe’s includes six different member organizations with multiple sites including: St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, St. Mary’s General Hospital in Kitchener, St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Guelph, St. Joseph’s Home Care, St. Joseph’s Lifecare Centre in Brantford and St. Joseph’s Villa in Dundas.
St. Joseph’s Villa has had a COVID-19 outbreak since Nov. 20. It has seen 55 infections and eight deaths. There was a facility-wide outbreak at the Greater Niagara General Hospital after more than 100 people tested positive for COVID-19. The St. Catharines General site also has an outbreak.
Stewart’s vacation follows a number of politicians, including Hamilton Conservative MP David Sweet, who were vacationing abroad while Ontario entered a province-wide lockdown and as infections and deaths persist during the pandemic.
News of Stewart’s vacation also comes as Hamilton and Niagara reported a combined 289 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.
Unions disappointed by CEO’s tropical vacation
Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions/CUPE, said he was “disappointed” to hear about the vacation.
“People in a position of leadership need to show leadership,” he said in a phone interview late Tuesday.
“You would hope someone in a senior position in a major hospital system would get that it’s important to not only respect health orders but to be seen to be respecting them because you would think you would have a much more profound understanding of why those orders were in place.”
Morgan Hoffarth, president of Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, said Stewart’s choice was “irresponsible.”
“We have been working tirelessly day in and day out. I work at a nursing home in an outbreak, so for front-line health-care workers to be at work every single day and not able to take a day off, and to have leaders that are travelling internationally or abroad for pleasure is not something I think people will respond favourably to,” In a phone call late Tuesday,
Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, a union which represents more than 60,000 front-line health-care workers in Ontario said “There cannot be one set of rules for hospital CEOs making over half-a-million dollars a year and a different set of rules for frontline workers, like PSWs, who are still waiting for the temporary wage increase promised to them by the Premier last October.”
None of the union leaders called for Stewart’s resignation.
“I think that’s something he needs to reflect on … I’m not a big fan of making an example out of people who fail,” Hurley said.
“This is an example of a significant portion of Ontario society that still doesn’t get we’re in a terrible pandemic and can’t be travelling as we always did much as we would like to.”
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