Windsor·In Depth

The faces of public health: Meet Phil Wong, inspector ensuring safe workplaces and businesses

Since the pandemic began in March, public health inspector Phil Wong didn't take a single day off until the Thanksgiving long weekend — and even then, he was on call. 

Phil Wong has been putting out fires every day and trying to prevent others

Public health inspector Phil Wong went from making sure local restaurants and local term care homes were following up to code to then ensuring places were safeguarding against a deadly virus. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

This story is the first in a series that looks at how public health care officials in Windsor are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. CBC News spoke with the people who work at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit and discussed the moments that made them proud to be on the front lines, the sacrifices they made to help contain the spread of a deadly virus and the frustrations they felt. 

Since the pandemic began in March, public health staff have worked flat out, so busy the first time the entire team was off  was on the Thanksgiving long weekend — and even then, Phil Wong was on call.    

One year ago, Wong said, his job was to make sure places like restaurants and retirement homes were following health codes. But over the last seven months, his role has been to guide a small team at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit on managing deadly outbreaks at long-term care homes and ensuring restaurants appropriately re-open under ever-changing government guidelines. 

Wong spoke with CBC News about the amount of planning and inspections his team has performed, the toll its taken on his mental health, the support from his family and the silver lining in it all. 


On the work

A lot of calls come in ... since the pandemic till now, 6,500 complaints and inquiries just for our team. That's not including COVID-related questions that the public have when they're calling the nurses ... and [we've] conducted about 5,500 onsite inspections and we've had 120 outbreaks, not only COVID, but just in general. So we've got a team of 20 inspectors and five tobacco enforcement officers that are helping with the enforcement for the reopening of Ontario Act.

We try to prepare as much as we can ahead of time, but it's a new thing every day and we have to react.

I still remember end of March around there was when we started really getting a lot of cases, larger outbreaks in clusters in the community. And then at that point, it was just all hands on deck. 

A COVID-19 test drive-thru site set up by the local health unit back in May. (Thilelli Chouikrat/Radio-Canada)

I think a lot of our guys here have been doing 10-12 hours a day and doing 10-12 hours a day on call. The pandemic doesn't stop at the end of the day. So randomly putting all those things in place and it's still not over. So we're learning a lot from what has happened. And I think it's getting a lot more streamlined, the processes. 

But in those early days, in February, March, it was it was just very, very quick, very, very fast, and [you] feel like you're putting out fires every day, but you just keep trucking along. 

There's many different things that the health unit does. It's not just the outbreaks, it's supporting the businesses when they're reopening. Lots of calls coming in from small businesses, manufacturing companies, things of that nature, just reviewing the reopening plans and making sure that they're comfortable to reopen. And as we move through the different stages ... we're finding information out at the same time as everybody else is finding information. So really just being quick to act and supporting everybody as much as possible. 

On family

I've only good things to say about all the folks here at the health unit. They've all gone through the same thing, working long hours, going home, trying to figure out, all right, now what do I have to do to make sure our families are safe?

WATCH: Phil Wong talks about what it's been like to handle the pandemic

Phil Wong putting out fires every day, trying to prevent others

Windsor

1 month agoVideo
4:02
Since the pandemic began in March, public health inspector Phil Wong didn't take a single day off until the Thanksgiving long weekend — and even then, he was on call. Wong spoke with CBC News about the amount of planning and inspections his team has performed, the toll its taken on his mental health, the support from his family and the silver lining in it all. 4:02

I mean, for me personally, I was lucky. I have my fiancee at home. She did all the groceries and things like that. I remember seeing the grocery stores before all the measures came in place and then ... I didn't walk into a grocery store until about June. I walked in and it was all different and it was a shock to me, seeing it change so greatly like that.

On mental health

In the middle of the pandemic, everyone's going to be under stress, under pressure. There's a lot of anxiety going on. You know, our folks have kids too, have family members, parents might be in long term care homes. So we all realized ... the importance of everybody's role and we're here to support each other. And I think that's really important.

South Walkerville residents thank Windsor Regional Hospital staff with a sign. (Attila Gombos/in-DepthProductions)

I mean, everybody's just go, go, go. But at the end of the day, we all work together and support each other and that's how we do it. Some of our folks here, again, they've been going long hours and not until ... actually Thanksgiving was the first day we actually shut down for the first time and for one day, but I was on call. 

So that was the first day since the beginning of the pandemic till now. To mentally prepare, I don't know how we do it, we just do it. 

The silver lining

I think one of the silver lining of this, of this pandemic in our community is that it really united a lot of folks in the community. I know just part of my role daily I talk to a lot of different stakeholders, different agencies and just seeing how many of them stepped up, volunteers helping, everything from donating cloth masks to volunteering their time. 

It's great and it shows that our community is strong and how during these pandemic times, these unprecedented times where everybody is coming together and helping each other out and that's just something that I will remember from this year. 

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about when Phil Wong had his first day off since the start of the pandemic. That has been corrected.
    Oct 28, 2020 12:39 PM ET

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