That was three years ago today. Officials confirmed the first “presumed” case of COVID-19 in Ontario.
It was a man in his 50s who had returned from Wuhan, China earlier in the week and had been taken to Sunnybrook Hospital after falling ill and had called 911.
At the time, the chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams, told reporters at a hastily convened news conference in Queen’s Park that “the risks to Ontarians remain low and things look well. They are being managed and controlled.”
But within weeks, the virus began spreading widely, prompting the Ontario government to declare a state of emergency on March 17.
The business was close to closing as people were told to work from home, and a daily briefing with Toronto’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa and Mayor John Tory, quickly became supervised appointments.
CP24.com spoke with de Villa on the third anniversary of the first case of COVID-19 in Ontario — and Canada — since those early days of the pandemic and when I learned we were in for the long haul.
This is what you should say:
CP24: So going back to the beginning of 2020, I think a lot of people felt like we have to charge for a few months and it’ll be gone. But given your background in infectious diseases, did you know then that we would have to find a way to live with this for the long term.
The villa: My colleagues and I knew that probability exists for a long-term event. But I think there is still hope that it can be contained, especially in the early days. If you remember in Wuhan, they basically locked down an entire neighborhood, not just the city, and I think there was hope at the time that there might be an opportunity to contain the situation. But of course in hindsight, we now know that people have visited the region and then traveled from this region to other parts of the world and in February and early March we saw the conditions in northern Italy and New York. So you definitely know in the first few days that there is a possibility of a new and emerging infection (prolonged outbreak). But I think we all had a hope that there might be a chance of containment and it wasn’t until I started to understand the scale of the spread of the disease, where the disease actually went and what kind of transplant that I really started to understand what the potential for a real epidemic is.
CP24: What do you remember from that first press conference, where you and several colleagues gathered in front of the cameras and announced that COVID-19 had arrived in Ontario?
The villa: That was on a Saturday afternoon. I actually remember going for a walk in the winter and getting a call from my co-worker, who was the doctor on duty the other day, saying “Hey, we have our first confirmed case.” From there, it was necessary to take action. Of course, at Toronto Public Health, we are used to dealing with reports of notifiable diseases and infectious diseases that are of public health importance. So there was a whole process (which already exists). We’d heard about COVID and we were preparing for exactly this kind of thing. But of course there is the theory and there is what actually happens. Once we got the call, it was clear we were going to have to make an announcement, hold a press conference, and work with outside partners, including the Ontario Public Health Partners who run the health lab overall. So the rest of the afternoon is about getting ready and heading downtown for the press conference. That was the beginning of a lot of my time in front of the camera.
CP24: Yes, COVID-19 has really thrust you into the spotlight in a way that might have been unfamiliar. Was it difficult to go from someone who did so much work behind the scenes to confronting the public with the city’s efforts to contain the virus?
The villa: Yes, it was a very important change. Obviously from time to time, you know, in public health work, local public health work, you find yourself in front of the news media and in front of cameras but certainly not at the level that we’ve seen and experienced during coronavirus disease. There was a time when there was a daily press conference to let people know, and even when it wasn’t daily, it was every day. And I think the hard part is not just making that change, but making it in an environment where it’s an emerging infectious disease, so we’re actively learning while explaining and that’s a challenge. But I hope people will appreciate that we, and I in particular, gave our best knowledge at the time knowing that things will change and that your knowledge deepens your understanding of changes and sometimes messages have to change too. It is not easy for anyone to understand this, including us. You know, when you learn a new topic, you have an understanding of something, and then over time that information appears and changes. And you realize “Yeah, I see now how what I understood before may not have been quite right. But it’s not easy to communicate. I think that was really one of the hardest parts, actually, communicating that effectively.”
CP24: Have you ever thought about what the past few years might look like without vaccinations? When COVID-19 was first discovered, there was no track record of producing a vaccine against new diseases so quickly.
The villa: Of course. It was a modern scientific miracle and I don’t even know how to put into words how grateful I am that it was possible. While nobody wants a pandemic if it were to happen, I’m glad it happened at a time when we already had the technology (mRNA vaccines). It was in development for years and years before that and was available for our use quickly. If I remember correctly, the COVID sequence was first put on January 12th, 2020, and then literally December 14th – some dates were just burned into your mind – December 14th was the first day the vaccine was administered here in Toronto. So, in the same calendar year, we already have a safe and effective vaccine to protect us. It’s a miracle. It is a testament to modern science and there is no doubt that it has saved lives and time of countless diseases. This is the hardest part of prevention. It is difficult to describe what did not happen. But I think when we look at other jurisdictions that have been less successful in terms of being able to roll out vaccines and vaccinate people, you can tell how affected they have been in terms of serious illness and especially in terms of deaths related to COVID-19[FEMALE[FEMININE][أنثى[FEMININE
CP24: Looking to the future, will COVID-19 still be part of everyday discourse. Will we ever get to a point where we stop celebrating these birthdays?
villaCOVID-19 will remain in our environment for the long term. How long it will remain in our daily speech, I think is largely up to us. We have more knowledge. I won’t tell you we have complete knowledge, but we have growing knowledge about COVID every day and we have these great tools and resources at our disposal to help us protect ourselves and those around us, especially those who are most vulnerable to the severe consequences of COVID-19, if you will. So, in my opinion, the better we can use our knowledge and tools, the faster discourse will become mainstream because it no longer needs to be mainstream. We have a lot of power on our hands and I think, you know, as a sign of Torontonians, we’ve shown that we can really work together to protect ourselves and especially those who are most vulnerable. So I’m still amazed at what we’ve been able to achieve as a city. And I don’t quite say that like public health officials or government officials. I mean, as a city as a whole, we’re all in this together.