London Health Sciences Centre has revealed that its President and CEO, Dr. Paul Woods, travelled to the United States numerous times last year amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis to visit family.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, LHSC confirmed that Woods had gone to the U.S. five times since March 2020, including most recently from Dec. 19 to 25.
“The Board of Directors is aware Dr. Woods continued to travel for personal reasons given the separation from his immediate family and the Board supports his continued leadership of LHSC,” Amy Walby, chair of LHSC’s board of directors, said in a statement.
Woods, a Canadian citizen, has green card status in the United States and made the trips to visit his immediate family, according to LHSC.
The organization said Woods, who lives alone, “followed public health guidelines” and mitigated risk by driving across the border, staying in one place while in the U.S. and quarantining upon his return.
LHSC has not said where Woods travelled, when else he travelled, or why he travelled despite non-essential travel being limited at land borders and discouraged by the government.
At the time of his most recent trip on Dec. 19, the Middlesex-London Health Unit confirmed there were six active outbreaks at University Hospital (UH) linked to at least 153 cases and 17 deaths at the facility.
At the beginning of the UH outbreaks, Woods had sent an internal memo to staff urging employees to hold themselves to “a higher standard” after the organization found ongoing issues when it came to staff taking off masks to eat together in break areas, and failing to socially distance, both outdoors and indoors.
“In many of these cases, internal contact tracing has shown the spread to be caused by direct staff-to-staff transmission,” Woods wrote in the memo, obtained by Global News. “To be clear: this is unacceptable, considering the infection control safety protocols and procedures LHSC has put in place over the past eight months.”
The memo prompted six unions representing LHSC workers to write an open letter, stating that Woods’ comments made their members feel “shamed, blamed, and humiliated, while they are working in the most unfavourable and challenging conditions they have faced in their careers,” according to a report in the London Free Press.
Peter Bergmanis, co-chair of the London Health Coalition, said Woods’ actions in travelling stateside were “inexcusable.”
“We are getting a little tired as front-line workers hearing ‘we are all in this together’ when clearly we are not,” he said. “Clearly there are some of us who can do anything they feel like and expect the rest of us to carry the load.”
Woods said in a statement that he “will no longer be travelling until federal restrictions limiting non-essential travel are lifted.”
“Hindsight will always be 20/20 and I cannot turn back the clock,” Woods said.
“What I can do is take accountability for my decision to visit with immediate family out-of-country and fully apologize. Please accept my deepest regret for my actions.”
In her statement, Walby noted that Woods had received the support of the Board, and that it was in the “best interest” to keep him as CEO to “maintain stability at the CEO level at such tumultuous times.”
Other health officials who have been caught in similar circumstances have not fared as well.
Dr. Tom Stewart was let go from his position as CEO of Niagara Health and St. Joseph’s Health System following news of a Caribbean vacation over the holidays. Stewart also resigned from his position on Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory table.
“There’s people being terminated for far less than Mr. Woods going away so I don’t find that to be very consistent, appropriate, or just,” Bergmanis said.
A number of politicians federally and provincially have come under fire for making trips out of the country over the holidays.
For months, health and government officials have been advising people against international travel because it leads to the spread of the coronavirus.
The federal government currently asks that Canadians avoid all non-essential travel outside the country until further notice, and non-essential travel across the Canada-U.S. land border is restricted until at least Jan. 21.
All Ontario residents were told to stay home and not interact with those outside their immediate households over the holidays in an effort to prevent a further surge in COVID-19 cases.
— With Files from Matthew Trevithick and Don Mitchell