healthunit fullWe are in the boardroom of the Bruce-Grey Public Health Unit. The sightlines impress. We are a few stories up, overlooking a stretch of the outer harbour. I am here to get a good view of the plague. After a brief string of snippy emails (snippy, that is, on my end - I thought much of the posted PUH data to be incomplete and inadvertently misleading), Dr. Ian Arra has graciously invited me to shadow him for a morning. This includes sitting in on a Zoomed-in Board of Health meeting.

This stunning copper-roofed building, with its four story atrium, soaring out of its own green and segregated campus, will always comprise a giant middle finger to Ontario taxpayers. But today it serves as a Covid-19 nerve and control centre second to none.

For CNN viewers, think of Dr. Arra as a more reserved Dr. Gupta. He is erudite, telegenic and in obvious command of the room. Fiercely intelligent, he holds his medical degree from the Syrian University of Tishreen and has completed extensive post-graduate work at the Lakehead and Sudbury. He is not a Toronto transplant and knows rural communities. He has lived in a failed state and knows something of the collapse of social and economic infrastructure. That might come in handy.

With Covid-19, he is clearly in his wheelhouse. No one wants this virus on their watch, of course, but this is the moment for public health to shine. Per that famous Ted Harris clip in Apollo 13, this has the makings of their finest hour.

Dr. Arra speaks to the priorities of emergency management. The Powerpoint shows us that Priority Number One is keeping first responders safe. The dead last priority? Reducing economic and social losses. Premier Ford needs to remember this. When he says he will only listen to those in white coats as to when to open up our economy, this sounds good and he is no doubt sincere, but it makes no sense. The economy ain’t a main priority of public health and they don’t pretend that it is. Per Dr. Arra, that is a political and not medical decision.

Dr. Arra is passionate about the paths and control of disease. He treats the Board to a detailed 25 minute talk on epidemiology and applies his knowledge to what faces Bruce-Grey.

It is a tour de force and is followed by a question and answer with the board members. This is where it gets interesting.

The Board focuses and drills deep into his data. They ask what a positive daily count of 14 actually means and whether such “all time high” numbers tell us anything about flattening the curve, given that testing criteria have evolved every other day.

The Board asks him what he meant when he said that the “doubling time” has moved to 10 and how he knows that. When he says that mass random testing is not helpful because of false positives and negatives, they push back. They draw on their college statistics courses and ask him whether we can’t control for a bandwidth of such false counts and nevertheless learn something from random testing of, say, Mildmay and Blue Mountains.

Most critically, they remind him of the Norma Jeans and Walker’s Landings of this province. They remind him that the curve is flat, that two weeks have gone by without a single hospitalization. They press him as to whether he is actively lobbying the Premier for an opening up of our lives. If not now, then when?

Actually, I made all that up. Apart from an O’Leary query re antibodies, no one asked anything even remotely on point. The member from Bluffs wanted to know when a guy can get his boat in the water. The Kincardine representative asks about her damn canoe.

At this stage, Dr. Arra did something rather unusual, walked over to the window, opened it and jumped out. Actually, that did not happen either. He handled the antibody question (it will be a while) and even talked about the canoe (ok if done alone and if you don’t have to step on a closed public beach).

I get a brief tour of the floor. I see the desks where all the contact tracing takes place (thank goodness we have a manageable 70 cases). The sign on one nurse’s door praises her as “Algorithm Girl.” I recognize another nameplate – it belongs to a woman from Kemble who in her off time sings at our local festivals. I am glad that we have local people doing local analysis and local contacting. If the health units do in fact merge and if this was being done from Goderich, much would be lost.

Two years as a municipal councilor have taught me much about civil service bloat and inefficiencies. Doubtless, that can be said of the health unit as well. Doubtless, lessons will be learned and the place will up its communications game. But these are serious people doing serious work and we are blessed to have them.

John A. Tamming
Owen Sound