The pandemic really has changed a lot in how we as the public view and interact with our public healthcare system and this is especially true of our public health units.
The Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) has greatly expanded its staff over the course of the pandemic. This has enabled it to role out an unprecedented vaccination program, a COVID-19 testing system, and, for a time, weekly news conferences with the media.
As a journalist, I have talked to and had the opportunity to ask questions to our Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, more times in the last two years than the previous four combined. This level of access was great while it lasted.
Recently, the bottom seems to have fallen out of the barrel when it comes to public communication from the EOHU. The EOHU has entirely stopped its weekly news conferences and requests for interviews or answers directly from Dr. Paul have gone unanswered.
Recently, I asked for a comment on whether there have been cases of vaccination certification fraud in the EOHU region. I asked through email if anyone had been referred to the police for suspicion of faking their vaccination status. I was told there was one, and when I asked a follow-up question of which police service this individual has been referred to this was the reply:
“In follow-up we thank you again for your interest. Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, Medical Officer of Health is unavailable to respond at this time,” reads the reply from the EOHU media team.
This response while disappointing would perhaps not be quite so aggravating if this morning I didn’t see Dr. Paul take the time for a TV interview with CTV Ottawa Morning.
While I understand that Ottawa news does have a market here in Cornwall, I do feel like more of an effort needs to be made to put responding to local questions ahead of appearances on news outlets outside your jurisdiction.
If anything, I feel that communications between the health unit and the local news is actually worse than it was before the pandemic. If I asked Dr. Paul for a comment pre-COVID I knew I would get it eventually rather than not at all.
In terms of the weekly virtual news conferences, I think that there was a good reason that those were stopped. They were poorly attended by the end because they had become routine and mundane. I agree with the decision to end those video calls, but I think the public would have been better served if those communications resources and time were deployed in other ways rather than just taken off the table all together.
Not only do I think that communications around COVID-19 remain key, but so does communications around other public health issues that have not gotten much daylight due to the pandemic, but have grown nonetheless.
Issues such as rodents and mould are serious issues in Cornwall and the rodent issue in particular seems to be a growing problem. These are important issues and it would be great if we had a higher level of communication and access to get the answers that we need on public health topics that are not COVID-related.
Not every issue needs a direct quote from Dr. Paul, but he should ensure that his communications team can independently release information and give full answers to questions without his direct involvement. Instead, my experiences as of late have been receiving brief one sentence answers. A public health unit is by definition a public facing organization and getting information should not feel like pulling teeth.
Don’t get me wrong though. The health unit has done a good job during the pandemic, overall. They have taken necessary steps to protect the public health and I do believe that is the first concern that everyone at the EOHU has in mind.
These are just thoughts based on my own experiences trying to get public health information from a public health organization.
As always readers you can send me your thoughts on this or any other issue as a Letter to the Editor by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org