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OSMH president reflects on 2020, says still 'a lot of work to do'

'We need to cross the finish line and we all need to cross together,' says Carmine Stumpo

Carmine Stumpo can recall the moment he knew 2020 would not be a normal year.

His friend and former colleague, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre president and CEO Andy Smith, was on TV Jan. 25 after a man who had contracted COVID-19 was admitted to the Toronto hospital.

“I talked to him that afternoon and said, ‘So it begins,’” said Stumpo, president and CEO of Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital (OSMH). “It’s etched in my mind.”

So are March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, and later that month, when Ontario went into its first lockdown.

Stumpo knew it was a “major event,” but he noted it was “hard to imagine back then the potential impact of what this pandemic would be.”

He was working in Toronto during the SARS crisis in the early 2000s. It was a learning experience, even though hospitals are always trying to plan for such public health emergencies.

“A number of us have been working in health care long enough to know that these events are serious from the get-go. That’s why you prepare with pandemic plans,” he said. “You’re prepared to respond, but you can’t imagine all the different scenarios that will occur.”

COVID-19 is an example of going with the flow, adapting on the fly.

OSMH staff met for a debrief in the summer, after the first wave.

“We learned and we adjusted along the way,” Stumpo said.

The pandemic has presented many challenges for health-care workers. It has strained resources at OSMH and led to the postponement of certain procedures. However, Stumpo said the “impact of ambiguity and uncertainty on people” has been the “most challenging” part of the crisis.

“Everyone’s got a loved one that’s either not well, a senior, a vulnerable member of the community, a small-business owner,” he said, adding it has exacerbated mental health issues, too.

The stress it has placed on health-care workers also cannot be overstated.

“It’s a concern you cannot shut off when you walk out of the hospital, ever,” Stumpo said.

The pandemic is not something Stumpo wanted to have to work through, and he hopes he doesn’t have to again, but sometimes the worst situations can bring out the best in people.

“It’s a real sense of pride to see how everyone rallied. I think this crisis really brought us closer together,” he said. “There is nowhere else I'd rather be during this pandemic.”

In the early days of the pandemic, there appeared to be a collective sense of determination among people to support each other and do what it took to ensure the crisis ended as soon as possible. As the months dragged on, though, that oft-repeated phrase, “We’re all in this together,” seemed to slip out of the lexicon. Skepticism and conspiracy theories became more prevalent. Stumpo attributed that, in part, to “COVID fatigue.”

“It’s amazing how that can play on your mind,” he said. “They probably know the science, but they might not want to accept it. We have to cut through that.”

The rapid pace at which information and recommended precautions evolved also likely contributed to that distrust. But, citizens aren’t the only ones having to deal with those frequent changes. It’s a reality for health-care workers, too.

Earlier in the year, few predicted there would be record cases come December, but that’s what’s happening, including in Simcoe County.

People are now being faced with a Christmas that will be difficult for many. Simcoe County is in the red (control) zone, but it will join the rest of the province in entering the grey (lockdown) one starting Dec. 26, and health officials are urging everyone to not gather together as they usually would.

Stumpo is realistic, though, and knows not everyone will follow that advice. Two to three weeks from now, he said, “this hospital is going to be worse off.”

A spike in cases is expected after the holidays. It happened after Mother’s Day in the spring.

It can be hard to effectively send the message to people that these are “very difficult but necessary restrictions,” Stumpo said.

Dr. Michael Warner did his best to make that point during a recent interview on CBC News Network, after five patients had recently died in his intensive care unit in Toronto.

“Most people don’t have a mental model of what dying from COVID looks like,” Warner said during that interview. “You’re in a room, perhaps with a nurse — hopefully, with a nurse — holding your hand. You might be lying on your belly because that’s the only way you can breathe. If we have time to get the iPad ready, we organize a Zoom call with your family. They’re crying on the Zoom call as you take your last breath. And you’re alone. You’re with us, but you’re not with the people who know you.”

“That kind of messaging — I felt for him giving that message,” Stumpo said.

It’s a necessary message, he added, if people are going to appreciate the seriousness of the virus.

“Be grateful that you’re not as affected as some people are,” he said.

Heading into 2021, Stumpo is hopeful as vaccines continue to be rolled out. It’s important to be “realistic and honest with people, but still supportive and hopeful.”

He used racing as an analogy.

“We need to cross the finish line and we all need to cross together,” he said. “The optimism of a vaccine has to be the motivation to finish this properly and not the rationalization to stop the tough restrictions prematurely, because we still have a lot of work to do.”

That work won’t end when the pandemic is over. People will have to come together to support one another to heal the wounds inflicted by the virus — wounds that will be particularly acute among health-care workers.

“Providers have been traumatized,” Stumpo said.

He thanked the community, everyone at OSMH and all of the hospital’s partners for their tireless dedication during an unfathomably difficult year.


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Nathan Taylor

About the Author: Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor is the desk editor for Village Media's central Ontario news desk in Simcoe County and Newmarket.
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