Q&A: Waterloo Region's top doctor looks back on the COVID-19 pandemic that dominated 2020
KITCHENER -- Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang has been carrying out a key role at Region of Waterloo Public Health for nearly two decades. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is making Dr. Wang the face of the region’s fight against the novel coronavirus. We hear from Dr. Wang during public health’s weekly updates via video; she offers a breakdown of the latest data, guidelines and insight. As 2020 comes to an end, we’re getting personal with Dr. Wang about what’s turned out to be a challenging year for public health and our community.
Looking back at 2020, at what moment did you realize that COVID-19 would have such a significant impact on our lives?
When it started to escalate very quickly in March. At first, as your viewers may remember, we had a few travel cases in Ontario start to trickle in. But then the cases started to take off and there were major outbreaks in long term care homes with spread to many residents and staff and unfortunately a number of deaths. That’s when I realized COVID had already spread quite broadly in our region, like in the rest of Ontario, and this was going to be a difficult pandemic to fight.
How would you describe your experience as a Medical Officer of Health during the pandemic?
I am grateful that I have the opportunity to serve, but it certainly has been a challenging experience. In training to become a medical officer, you learn about things such as how to manage outbreaks and you prepare for the possibility of a pandemic. But living through one is a whole other experience as I’m sure it is a whole other experience for many viewers. Normally with outbreaks you apply outbreak measures and things start to get better, but this has been like a continued emergency. One that keeps going and that is very hard on many people. Not only on their health and on the health care system but on people economically, mentally, emotionally. So it’s been trying for many in our community and we have to continue to fight. We’ll have to continue fighting for a number of months more even though we are very encouraged by the availability of the vaccine. It is a very tiring journey for many and there are a lot of sacrifices that people have had to make along the way but we can do this. This too shall pass, we will get through this. Things will get better.
Can you take us through a "day in the life" of Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang?
I generally work seven days a week, an average around 16 hours a day. A little less on weekends if I’m not on call. I take a few days off every few months. During the normal hours of a work day it’s go, go, go. My focus is on adjusting things that are a priority and time sensitive. Once the emails, Zoom calls and phone calls start to calm down then I work on other things that I need to get done that I couldn’t get to earlier in the day. On the weekends I’m on call or catching up on things I couldn’t get to earlier in the week. Like a lot of people, I try to eat better and exercise more but it has been difficult during the pandemic and I don’t always do so well in those areas now. I would say really my number one pastime is a good night’s sleep.
How are pandemic restrictions impacting *your* personal life?
I used to be someone who really enjoyed travelling, whether it was discovering Canada and Ontario, or other places in the world. It was something I looked forward to, my husband and I looked forward to, every year. We travel quite a bit, but that’s obviously not in the cards any time soon. So we just try to stay local and take walks in nature and things like that and try to get in some exercise and appreciate the wonderful community that we have in Waterloo Region.
We hear messages about the importance of taking care of our mental health. What do you do to take care of *your* mental health?
I try to practice gratitude. It’s not easy. I myself have to remind myself that I have to take care of my own mental health and it’s something that any of us may find we need help with at any time. So it’s definitely not something to be ashamed of. You may have heard me say this before but I know, you know, growing up it was something that was viewed as a weakness or shameful if you felt like you had some distress, from a mental health perspective. It’s definitely not that. In fact, I admire people who reach out and ask for help when they feel they need it. It could happen to any of us, especially during these times. I know a lot of us are dealing with difficult times mentally and emotionally due to various reasons because of the pandemic. So I would really encourage people, if they feel they want to reach out, to do that. There are mental health supports in our region.
Looking ahead to 2021 what do you think will be the biggest challenge for public health?
I think the biggest challenge will be that the availability of the vaccine will not match up with the demand that’s quite high and is already there, at least for a while. We just got an update from the province yesterday that they’re expecting a good amount of vaccines to start flowing in the new year, but it’s still relatively limited.
They said for the first three months of 2021 they’re thinking we could immunize about a million people in Ontario. Then in the next four months after that -- from April to July -- they’re expecting much more vaccine and then we’ll probably get to over 50 per cent of the population. But that’s still not 100 per cent of the population that will be offered [the vaccine] before late summer 2021.
So I think with the excitement of the vaccine, which is fantastic, there could be these expectations about being able to get a dose soon. It will take some time because with the limited supplies at first Ontario, like other provinces in following guidance from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization in Canada, is rolling out the vaccine to the highest priority groups first. So it will take a number of months before we all can have a chance to get the vaccine.
I think that’s going to be perhaps the biggest challenge because people are very tired, whether it’s from fighting COVID on the front lines of the health care system or having to deal with the unfortunate consequences of COVID, whether to your health or the economy, it will be difficult. We also know [fighting] COVID relies on a lot of us continuing to keep up with strict measures. We have to keep them up all the time because that’s the most effective tool we have. But it’s tiring to always have to do that and have to continue to stay apart or at a distance from people that we like being close to. So that’s also going to be a challenge because we’re going to have to continue to do that for a number of months still.
With the vaccine rollout, even if it will be limited in the beginning, we should start to see over time gradual improvements in our population’s health and in the health of the most vulnerable who we’re trying to get the vaccine to first. I’m hoping with progress on that front, progress on our community’s health overall, that that will encourage all of us to continue persevering with adhering to the public health recommendations and helping to protect each other.
What are your New Year's resolutions, personally and professionally?
I think my biggest wish is that I just be able to continue to contribute as best as I can and that I take a little bit more time to make sure that I get enough rest because I have a tendency to go, go, go until I’m really tired and that’s not always the best way to go at something that’s really a marathon. We’ve been saying that a lot, that we have to pace ourselves. So it’s something I’m personally trying to get better at, which is pacing myself and just trying to appreciate and be grateful for the little things every day and doing what I can to try to encourage people with whatever good news that I can deliver while also keeping them informed about the reality of the current state so they can continue to make the best informed decisions for themselves.
I just want to thank residents of Waterloo Region. I know it’s been a very difficult year but I know many countless people in our region have been trying so hard. They’ve been trying hard for themselves, their loved ones. It is a difficult disease to fight against and we need to keep up the efforts, obviously. I just want people to know I appreciate all the efforts they’ve made so far and the fact Waterloo Region is caring and resilient community. We will get through this together and we will come out stronger on the other side. I truly believe that.