Toronto medical leader cites family health reasons for travel to Arizona during COVID-19, explains deleted tweets

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Until recently, the Twitter account of Dr Keith Stewart, a senior executive at the University Health Network in Toronto, included a handful of photos from his winter trip to Arizona.

One showed him lying in the sun with his eyes closed. Another showed him a hike in the desert.

“While I enjoy living in Toronto, I have to say the desert air is very nice again,” he wrote in a post.

Tuesday evening, the images disappeared from his account.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Stewart, director of the Princess Margaret Cancer Program and UHN vice president, cancer, told The Star he deleted them after seeing the headlines on Dr Thomas Stewart. The CEO of two major Ontario hospital systems had resigned after admitting he had recently taken “non-essential” vacations in the Dominican Republic.

“I didn’t want people to have the false impression that I had just galloped on the beach,” said Stewart of UHN, who has no connection to the other Stewart, explaining that the main reason he was and his wife traveled to Arizona. Christmas and New Years were to take care of his wife’s parents, who had Parkinson’s disease.

“They are having a lot of trouble.”

The trip to Arizona is just the latest in a string of revelations underway in recent days from politicians and other high-level leaders who have traveled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of these incidents have sparked public outrage and resignations.

While some people traveled purely for leisure, others, including Stewart, say they did so for personal or family reasons.

While Stewart recognized the need to show respect for frontline health workers – “If you’re just going on vacation, it’s probably not the best time to take it” – he said there could have “compelling” reasons to travel during the pandemic.

“I think there is a gray area. There are compelling reasons to travel when necessary, especially when family is involved.

But Queen’s University infectious disease specialist Dr Gerald Evans said Stewart should have exercised more discretion, given his leadership role in the medical community.

Evans suggested that Stewart’s wife could have traveled alone, if it was serious.

“To me, it just sends all the wrong messages. This is my point of view, ”he said.

“What you do is a reflection of your perception of fairness with others. Not everyone can afford to get on a plane and travel there. “

Moreover, he added, the United States is currently in a “garbage can fire”.

“Of all places, the United States? … Business is crazy. You are traveling to one of the countries where the number of infections is extremely high. Any kind of contact there will be considered high risk.

University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. David Fisman agrees.

“To me, being a good citizen and a leader means following public health guidelines designed to protect us all.”

Stewart, who was appointed to his post at UHN last June and described in a press release as “a renowned clinician and researcher in the field of multiple myeloma,” returned Sunday from Arizona and is currently in quarantine.

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Prior to his appointment, he had spent many years at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. He still owns a house there, which is occupied by his in-laws.

Stewart told The Star, in retrospect, that he would “think more carefully” about a trip now, but that he didn’t regret his decision.

“My wife’s parents are here. They had health issues and we had other things to clean up and we just took advantage of the downtime, ”he said.

“I don’t think I did anything wrong. I think I had good reason to be there. I spoke to my senior leaders about it and said, “What do you think? They said, “If you have family issues you should go. So I felt very open about it, transparent. I still don’t feel like I did anything wrong. But I understand the optics, why people were saying, ‘You should be in the office.’ “

Stewart said while in Arizona he kept in touch with his administrative staff and participated in calls related to COVID-19.

“It wasn’t like we took our eyes off the ball. “

Gillian Howard, a spokesperson for UHN, confirmed in an email that Stewart’s trip was “discussed with UHN leaders and was considered unique, in that there is a family ( who) was separated by a move, with family health concerns taken into account. Although there was some risk, Dr. Stewart quarantined him upon his return to Canada.

Howard added, “We have encouraged everyone to follow public health guidelines before the holidays and have made this clear in a communication to everyone on our messaging system. “

When asked what he thought of other high-profile executives who had traveled over the holidays, Stewart said some politicians who posted on social media in an apparent attempt to cover up their trips clearly demonstrated “bad behavior “.

He also said it was “probably bad judgment” on the part of Dr. Tom Stewart, general manager of the Hamilton and Niagara hospital systems, to have taken a Caribbean vacation. (In a public apology this week, this fellow Stewart admitted, “Everyone should avoid non-essential travel now, including me”).

Seeing those headlines on Tuesday night, Dr Keith Stewart said he decided to pick up on some of his previous Twitter posts from Arizona.

” I thought about it. If I take it off, it will probably look bad. But on the other hand, leaving out, if there is someone with malicious intent, they might want to use that, ”he said.

” It’s funny. As I was going to bed last night, I said to my wife… ‘Don’t be surprised if this becomes a problem.’

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