Dr. Ian Gemmill leaves his temporary job as acting medical officer of health

Merna Emara
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Dr. Ian Gemmill has been the acting officer of health for the Northwestern Health Unit for one year. For the past six months Gemmill made headlines as he provided updates and details of COVID-19 to residents of northwestern Ontario and the neighbouring regions.

Many waited for Gemmill’s weekly public meetings to answer their questions and clear misunderstandings. But last week, the NWHU bid farewell to Gemmill as they welcomed back Dr. Kit Young-Hoon, who was on maternity leave.

Gemmill said Young-Hoon approached him because she was going on maternity leave for a year and they needed to have medical officer of health coverage for that period of time.

“When she approached me, it was probably in February of 2019. I was very intrigued and delighted to have the opportunity,” Gemmill said.

Gemmill did not move to Kenora for the job, but he did visit both Kenora and Red Lake during the first six months of his position. He said it is unfortunate he did not get to visit more often because of the pandemic.

Despite all the inconveniences that came his way, Gemmill said it all worked out well.

“Northwestern Health Unit has very good technological set up, so we use programs like Go To Meeting and Skype to be in touch and I would say it worked out extremely well,” Gemmill said. “I would say we had the same discussions we would have face-to-face. The face-to-face is always nice, but this is a cheaper, more efficient technology and it worked out from my point of view.”

Gemmill was the officer of health in Kingston for 20 years. He retired in 2017, but he has been doing several acting jobs since then, including one in Belleville, Ontario.

“This was a unique opportunity and a chance to get to know how programs are delivered,” Gemmill said. “We have a very large geographic area and a smaller population. But also I was really keen about seeing the northwest again.”

Although Gemmill worked from Kingston, the northwest is a place he knows very well from early in his childhood.

“I grew up in Winnipeg so I had worked in the northwest years ago as a student working on the railway in Sioux Lookout and Fort Frances on the CN line,” Gemmill said. “I knew the area, but I have not had the opportunity to spend as much time up there.”

When Gemmill began working, there was an agreement on the number of hours to be worked and time spent with public health programming issues such as the dental and school programs.

“That was the agreement when we started and I would say that it worked out very well. Good strong team, good and strong managers. When the pandemic became declared in March, everything changed and I think that at that point in time it was unforeseen and quite difficult to describe what was going on. I would say this is the biggest public health crisis that I have dealt with. It’s so protracted, it has been going on for months,” Gemmill said.

“From March on, it has been more intense, it has been more intense for everybody in public health and I just felt that it was the right thing to do to step up to ensure that the agency is in contingency with the best possible medical public health medicine advice.”

Gemmill said besides the work intensity at the NWHU, the most difficult part is not knowing everything yet about this virus.

We are learning fast but there are still a lot of question marks and so providing the best possible advice in that context of so many questions. Some of the questions that are problematic is for example is testing a lot of people with no symptoms across Ontario.

“I had a chance to work for a year with a very fine team. I am very impressed with how the Northwestern Health Unit provides an array of programs in circumstances that are different than other parts of Ontario. In the north you have got be cognizant of making sure that everybody has access. It is a smaller population and northwestern Ontario is a huge geographic area,” Gemmill said.

“I think that they have done a fine job of having centralized the way of doing things that makes it more accessible and I think that the quality of the programming that is provided there has really impressed me. I had a great time and I will visit but I’m very thankful for the opportunity to work here.”

Gemmill has one advice to the residents of northwestern Ontario: to be charitable and respectful during these unprecedented times by following the advice as carefully as we can so we don’t spread the disease. Gemmill said the process will be a touchy one because the virus is unpredictable.

For example, Gemmill said, respecting all the regulations on social distancing, respecting the people who work in closed indoor public spaces who have no choice but to be there, by putting on a mask and showing them that you care about them.

“It is about the fact that it is going to be the long haul. If we are lucky, we’ll be out of this sometime next year, maybe it’ll go on longer than that depending on how the virus behaves and how are the measures that we have in trying to deal with it,” Gemmill said.

“Just to keep good thoughts about it and to keep good faith. It is a matter of pulling together rather than have it all fall apart with conflict and disagreement and criticism. I think now is the time for all of us to recognize that we are in this together. It is a virus that we have to deal with until we get a vaccine.”