Maureen Taylor is a physician assistant in infectious diseases at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto.
I was leafing through my SARS scrapbook on the weekend (as one does), and asked myself, not for the first time, “What would Don do?” Don, meaning my late husband, Dr. Donald Low, a Toronto microbiologist who became a familiar figure during the SARS outbreak. Don died of a brain tumour in 2013, still warning me and anyone else who would listen that the world was “overdue” for a pandemic.
Whether it would be a new strain of influenza or some other virus that jumped from animals to humans, Don thought our public health and health care systems needed to prepare. This meant convincing government X that it needed to invest in stockpiles of masks and antivirals and hire top researchers to be well-prepared for a pandemic – even though it was going to be government Y that would end up being in charge when The Big One hit and government X would get no points from either the public or the media for investing in preparedness.
During SARS Don was hailed as a calm, reassuring voice along with Dr. Sheela Basrur, Toronto’s chief medical officer of health at the time, and another beloved public health voice sadly taken too soon by cancer. But it wasn’t Don’s calmness that impressed reporters like me, so much as his blunt honesty.
Jim Coyle, former columnist with the Toronto Star called Don, “…a man whose feelings bristle so palpably across his face he would surely be one of the world’s least-proficient poker players.” (Toronto Star, April 26, 2003)*
Don told us frankly when the science on a particular aspect of the virus was lacking. He said, “We don’t know yet,” frequently. Reporters didn’t gang up on him for that. He was just telling the truth. He also took responsibility for mistakes, like the disastrous second wave of SARS at North York General Hospital. And his predictions weren’t always accurate. “The (SARS) problem in China is out of control so this is a virus that is not going away,” he told the Globe and Mail. We’ve got this forever.” (Globe and Mail, April 12, 2003)* Thankfully, he was wrong about that.
SARS revealed troubling gaps in Ontario’s neglected public health system, particularly in its central and regional labs. When the outbreak was over, Dr. Basrur, promoted to Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, tasked Don with rebuilding the provincial lab system. His primary goal was to move the moribund labs into the new century, attract young talented microbiologists from Canada and elswhere, and give them the resources to study old and emerging infectious diseases. He accomplished that. I am so pleased that the central lab, in its new digs in the MARS building across from Queen’s Park, has a Donald E. Low Emergency Preparedness Boardroom, where I envision Don’s photographs looking down daily on the COVID-19 meetings taking place 17 years after SARS.
And so, if he were still around, what would Don make of this pandemic version of SARS? And what, if anything would he have done differently?
First of all, I believe he’d never be allowed to participate in the Ontario public health media briefings today – those tightly-controlled affairs with officials whose dissembling leaves journalists more frustrated than informed. It was only within the last week, after the media uncovered COIVD-19 outbreaks in at least 16 nursing homes, that Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health finally started to provide a province-wide picture of long term care home infections.
I think he’d be dismayed that the provincial lab he helped build has struggled to keep up with the demand for testing, a combination, apparently, of insufficient supply chains for the components needed to do PCR testing, and a sheer lack of human resources. These problems seem to have been resolved this week thanks to the hard work of Don’s capable successor Dr. Vanessa Allen and her partners in other hospital and private labs.
Don was fascinated by the 1917 influenza pandemic, and the types of “social isolation” that were implemented to stop it. I think he’d applaud the (mostly) clear advice from leaders like Dr. Bonnie Henry in B.C., Dr. Eileen De Villa in Toronto and Dr. Theresa Tam at the Public Health Agency of Canada on this issue. I think he’d even give a thumbs-up overall to the leadership of most provincial premiers and the prime minister as they shut down businesses and try to provide financial support to offset the collateral damage from COVID-19. You don’t even want to know what he’d say about the leadership to our south and the politicization of the US Centers for Disease Control.
The late Canadian journalist, Christie Blatchford described Don this way during SARS: “He’s a scientist and a doctor, not a politician or even a high-level public official. No one owns him, and he owes no one.” She concluded by calling him one of SARS’ “admirable, solid, no bullshit heroes.” (The National Post on April 26, 2003)* No argument from me, that’s why I eventually married him.
Of this I am sure: Don would consider COVID-19 The Big One. And if he were here, he’d roll up his sleeves, wash his hands and get to work.
*Quote taken from original newspaper article in Dr. Low’s SARS scrapbook.