Back in mid-January, when anti-vax protesters concluded that it was somehow a good idea to accost Peterborough’s medical officer of health at his East City home, they would have been wise to do their homework.
The man who answered their door knock on the evening of January 19th wasn’t going to be easily intimidated, if at all. With his having worked in war zones as a field doctor with Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), this intrusion was child’s play — a nuisance, yes, but nothing that came close to shaking his resolve.
Just seven weeks earlier, on December 1st, 2021, Dr. Thomas Piggott started his new job at Peterborough Public Health, his arrival coinciding with the emergence of the life-threatening COVD-19 Omicron variant.
While serving as medical officer of health for Labrador-Grenfell Health last year, Dr. Piggott had heard that Dr. Rosana Salvaterra was retiring after 13 years as Peterborough’s top public health official. A subsequent phone chat with her, according to Dr. Piggott, “planted a seed that started to grow.”
He interviewed for the position and, on August 12th, Peterborough’s board of health announced that Dr. Piggott had the job.
“It was a little sooner than my family had anticipated leaving Labrador, but we had a pretty difficult time there during the pandemic being so far from family (in Ontario),” recalls Dr. Piggott. “It really made us think about being closer to family, which is something we deeply value. This was in the back of our minds when the opportunity came up.”
“I had heard about Peterborough Public Health, having worked in Ontario before we moved to Labrador,” Dr. Piggott adds. “I knew it was an organization that was deeply respected in the province, especially for its leadership on things like health equity, fairness, and the social determinants of health.”
His first day on the job, says Dr. Piggott, presented the “giddy excitement of a new opportunity in a new place.” However, he adds, “That was quickly eclipsed by omicron, which worried us significantly. What might have been a more slow start meant I had to hit the ground running.”
That he did, bringing himself up to speed quickly on key local public health issues and priorities with the help of input from the board of health and the senior public health leadership team. While the continued response to the pandemic was priority number one, another challenge caught Dr. Piggott’s full attention: the stress on public health staff.
“They had been working non-stop for nearly two years at that point — they were tired,” he recalls, referring to public health staff’s organization and coordination of vaccination clinics, the fielding of countless phone and email inquiries, and the communication of numerous directives and key messages.
“Also there had been events, including people coming into our building and some charges laid in conjunction with that. Staff was quite scared. I knew I was going to have to help lead the team in a way that supported and protected them; that valued them and recognized just how much they had sacrificed to help our community.”
So it was that Dr. Piggott’s mandated public health protection of the residents of Peterborough city and county and Hiawatha and Curve Lake First Nations also took in the well-being of those toiling at public health’s King Street office in downtown Peterborough.
He says the January protests at the home he shares with his wife and two young daughters “really impacted some of our staff. They became fearful.”
With two people charged with criminal harassment and intimidation of a health official in the aftermath and the matter still before the courts, Dr. Piggott won’t say much about incident, other than noting he has experienced “far more significant and concerning safety threats.”
What he will comment on is the huge outpouring of public support that followed.
Conceived and organized by a small group of residents, kawarthaNOW publisher Jeannine Taylor among them, a Facebook group — Nogojiwanong Peterborough Stands With Dr. Piggott — brought forth countless messages of support while quickly swelling to some 1,500 members.
If the relative newcomer to Peterborough didn’t know how much the vast majority valued his efforts — and those of his staff — to keep them safe, he now had full evidence.
“It was really heartwarming,” says Dr. Piggott. “I shared a lot of those messages with staff. Even though they were initially directed at me, the whole staff could see and benefit from the positive messaging. I’m not somebody who likes taking positive feedback. I’d rather focus on what can I do better and how we can do more.”
Now, as COVID continues to hang on — the latest numbers show 340 active cases in the region with two more deaths recorded last week — and influenza and RSV cases continuing to rise, Dr. Piggott expresses the same message he has since day one: take the steps necessary to keep yourself and those around you safe.
“What I think is important and what I’m really emphasizing at this point of the pandemic, is there are big societal changes we can make to continue to live with this pandemic and prepare for others in the future,” he says.
“It’s not just things like masking. It’s not just things like getting vaccinated. There’s ventilation in buildings. If you have poor ventilation, the transmission of infectious diseases can be worse. We need building codes. We need individual organizations to take leadership and say ‘We’re going to develop better ventilation and ensure that the air is cleaner and safer.'”
“We say ‘Stay home when sick’ — that’s easier said then done in practice,” Dr. Piggott notes. “If it’s between a paycheque to put food on the table and staying home to protect work colleagues, people are going to make the decision that puts their colleagues at risk. We have to improve access to adequate paid sick leave.”
“It weighs very heavily on me that we’re still seeing a lot of transmission and we’re still seeing death from COVID. It’s not over. It’s not done. Vaccines have been a game changer and have helped protect most of us, but that’s not the silver bullet. We need multiple layers — multiple measures — to really do the best that we can in saving lives.”
Dr. Piggott says while public health guidance sometimes finds itself at odds with government decisions and directives, he fully understands how things work.
“Politicians are the ones who put policies and laws into place. When they make those decisions, I think medical expertise is an important factor but it’s not the only factor. They have to weigh values and preferences of the people that elected them and that they serve. They have to weight economic considerations. I’m always mindful that my perspective is one that is grounded in medical expertise and public health evidence, but it’s a little bit more complicated when it comes to their decisions.”
If there’s a silver lining to COVID, Dr. Piggott says it can be found in the partnerships formed as part of the collaborative response to the pandemic.
“It’s not just me. It’s not even just public health. We worked with partners: family physicians, family health teams and the primary care community, the hospital, our municipalities, community organizations, and the media. I never looked at it like I’m in this work alone. The pandemic brought us together but we need to work hard to learn from what we learned and take that next step so that we can ensure we do better the next time.”
In the meantime, one year since arriving at Peterborough Public Health, Dr. Piggott is more convinced than ever that applying for position was the right move, both professionally and for his family.
“It has more than lived up to my expectations,” he says. “It has been a pretty interesting year. I hope that future years are little bit less dramatic. I’m so grateful for the incredible team I have here that works tirelessly to try to improve the health of our region. I have so much respect for them.”
As for his life outside of work in Peterborough, Dr. Piggott also has only positive things to say.
“The region is wonderful,” he says. “I’ve had the chance to do lots of hiking, canoeing, and cross-country skiing. My family is really happy and we look forward to many, many more years here.”