Thunder Bay

Physician involved in potential COVID-19 outbreak showed symptoms, told to get tested by Thunder Bay hospital

The physician at the heart of a potential COVID-19 outbreak at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre did show some symptoms of the virus, while working at the facility.

ONA said potential outbreak, and setback of elective surgeries was "completely avoidable"

The physician at the centre of a possible COVID-19 outbreak at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre was asked by a hospital executive to take a COVID-19 test. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

The physician at the heart of a potential COVID-19 outbreak at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre did show some symptoms of the virus, while working at the facility.

The hospital said the physician, who lives in another region of Ontario but works on a regular basis at the hospital, tested positive for the virus on Sunday night. He had worked in the ICU, among other departments, for five days before testing positive for COVID-19.

The union representing Registered Nurses across the province said this potential outbreak, was completely avoidable.

"And, as I understand it, this individual did have symptoms, and was symptomatic, and that makes it even more difficult," said Vicki McKenna, the president of the Ontario Nurses Association.

"I think the biggest piece is that this is preventable, by doing the self-isolation, if anyone has any symptoms, certainly gets tested and self-isolates."

"He was working at the hospital with regular chronic symptoms he has had for years," said Dr. Stewart Kennedy, who is heads up the hospital's COVID-19 response team.

"When you go through the screening, they look for new or worsening symptoms, but he did not have any new or worsening symptoms when he completed the screening."

Told to take a test

Kennedy said the physician took the COVID-19 test on Sunday morning, after being told to by other hospital executives.

"He was reviewed by our Chief of Staff, and was requested to get testing performed, and he got the testing performed."

McKenna said no matter the symptoms, the doctor should not have been at work, which would be the protocol followed for other healthcare workers.

"Whether they didn't recognize their symptoms as being significant," she said, noting that the recommendation to nurses is to self-isolate, and not go to work.

Kennedy said the physician, as of this morning, remains in Thunder Bay.

"They have determined he was symptomatic in early May that was consistent with COVID-19, but by the time he arrived in Thunder Bay, he was deemed to be less contagious because 14 days had passed before he came to Thunder Bay to practice at the intensive care unit."

Kennedy said the hospital will change its policies for staff who come into work, who have been outside of northwestern Ontario. He said the change can now be made because of increased testing capacity at the hospital.

Over 500 COVID-19 swabs have been given to staff over the past three days.

Kennedy said the hospital's medical advisory committee has appointed an investigative team, and the goal is to get that wrapped up as soon as possible. But, that full report may be kept under wraps.

"We will be reporting to the medical advisory, and if necessary, go public with it."

The potential for a COVID-19 outbreak has meant the cancellation of elective surgeries and other procedures this week; the hospital was ramping up to increase its surgical capacity by 25 per cent. That marker has now been pushed, at this point, until next week.

"Breakage" in wearing PPE

Kennedy has said there was some "breakage" in the use of PPE (personal protective equipment) by this one physician, but has not said what equipment was not worn, when, and the exact durations. He has said it was for "short periods of time."

"To wear PPE the total 12 hour shift, and at every opportunity, it can be difficult, not only for him, but for all of us."

"To be honest, we are all supposed to follow the PPE protocol to protect patients and staff, but certainly, all of us, from time to time, could be negligent for not wearing the [equipment] all the time," Kennedy said.

McKenna said wearing PPE is not optional when it comes to staff.

"We have the Chief Medical Officer of Health directives over personal protective equipment, and what all employees and health care workers should be wearing. And employers should be complying with that, and the employees as well."

"The bottom line, is if the workers are protected properly, and have the correct PPE, therefore their patients are protected. This is about protecting Ontarians. Yes, it's about protecting the nurses and healthcare workers, but it is about protecting Ontarians and the patients that they care for."

McKenna said there appears to be a double standard when it comes to how rules for full-time staff and contract employees, like physicians, are enforced. That same standard applies to their ability to work in multiple jurisdictions, she said.

"We know this from other sectors as well, the employment relationship is different of someone who's a permanent employee," she said.

"It's unclear to me why this individual wouldn't have been self-isolating and why that didn't happen."

"I would think that they could extend that beyond to people who are essentially contract workers," McKenna said, referring to regulations around travel from one region to another.

"Experts have been very clearly identifying what PPE should be worn," she said. "But, it is about protection, and it is about safety and infection control. And, it isn't about personal preference."

"You need to wear a mask, and if you refuse to wear a mask, you really shouldn't be there. It's that simple."


Jeff Walters


Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Jeff is proud to work in his hometown, as well as throughout northwestern Ontario. Away from work, you can find him skiing (on water or snow), curling, out at the lake or flying.