Health unit, hospital call for empathy in wake of threats against staff

Taylor Campbell 5 minute read October 14, 2021

Escalating threats made to local health unit and hospital staff in recent weeks, including death threats to Windsor Regional Hospital CEO David Musyj, have prompted pleas for kindness.

Windsor-Essex County Health Unit CEO Nicole Dupuis on Wednesday said her staff have been receiving combative phone calls, emails, and social media comments since the pandemic’s onset. However, messages have become particularly hostile since proof of COVID-19 vaccination requirements came into effect across Ontario on Sept. 22.

“Please remember that the public health staff that you interact with are fulfilling their duties and service in the interest of the health of our community,” Dupuis said.

Over the past few weeks, the language used towards health unit personnel has “crossed the line at times to threats and abuse, sometimes threats of physical violence.” Staff operating vaccination clinics have been met by protesters, and tobacco and vaping enforcement officers who evaluate businesses for compliance with pandemic rules at times face “significant aggression.”

Police have been called to investigate some incidents, Dupuis said. No health unit staff have been physically injured, but “personal attacks and language that’s abusive and threatening injures, just in a different way.” Public interactions with the health unit’s social media posts became so nasty that the organization closed its comment sections.

Nicole Dupuis, shown on Tuesday, June 1, 2021, has been named the new CEO of the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit. Dan Janisse / Windsor Star

Hospital CEO Musyj told the Star he has personally received multiple threats, which police have been notified about. While he’s not inviting attacks on his life, he said he prefers angry people focus their fury on him through phone calls and emails instead of going after health-care workers.

Mass vaccination sites across the region have had security and police on site 24/7 since the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Windsor in December. Back then, law enforcement was protecting facilities from potential vaccine thieves, since the vials of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna were in short supply. Now, officers are protecting health-care workers from aggressive people at the region’s only remaining mass vaccination centre inside Devonshire Mall.

Some hospital staff at the vaccination centre have found nails in their tires, so they’ve started scanning the parking lot with metal detectors. Security cameras now point outside the building so guards can monitor what’s happening in the parking lot.

“If someone’s got something to say, or they want to take out their frustration, take it out on me,” Musyj said. “Send me emails, leave me voice messages. You might get lucky and I might pick up the phone — you can scream at me all you want, but don’t take it out on the frontline staff.”

A few individuals who have recently attended the mall vaccination centre have arrived “belligerent, and blame staff for them having to get vaccinated because they can’t get into a restaurant, or the bar, or the gym,” he said. “We’re having a zero-tolerance policy — we will escort them out of the building and they’re not going to get vaccinated.”

Last month, Windsor Regional Hospital confirmed police were investigating threats targeting senior leadership staff. Those threats were believed to be in response to the hospital’s strict vaccine mandate for employees, volunteers, and students. On Oct. 7, the hospital announced 63 unvaccinated staff and employees had been terminated for failing to receive the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Musyj said individuals from across Canada have reached out to him with their opinion of the hospital’s vaccine mandate. Many messages have praised the move, but a minority have been viscerally opposed.

When it comes to interacting with hospital staff, he said, “a simple thank you works wonders.” To those who are upset that they’re getting the vaccine, “just don’t say anything. Go in and get it and just move on.”

Acting medical officer of health Dr. Shanker Nesathurai said public health professionals anticipate “that people will express views contrary” to public health guidance.

“It’s not the healthy disagreement or skepticism that we’re concerned about. We’re concerned about the implicit or explicit threats.”

He asks that anyone with “different perspectives” from the health unit think about how their email or message might be perceived by a recipient. Writers and callers should leave personal attacks out and focus on their topic of concern.

This is not the first time a local health representative has spoken out about receiving aggressive messages. Former medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said in November of 2020 that he’d been bullied, and had reported threatening letters to law enforcement. He too called for “kindness and empathy” during what was at the time Bullying Awareness Week.

Windsor police spokesperson Darius Goze told the Star police investigate “all allegations of an offence that are reported” to them.

“We do not tolerate these acts and we encourage those who are being subjected to such acts to report the matter to police. We will continue to provide support to our community partners to ensure everyone’s safety and well-being.”

Anyone finding it difficult to cope with stresses brought on by the pandemic, which “has caused a wide spectrum of feelings, including fear, anxiety, frustration, and anger,” can access resources through the health unit’s website at wechu.org/cv/mental-health,” said the health unit’s Dupuis.

“We are truly in this together. Please remember to care for one another, to listen, and to respond.”

The health unit on Wednesday reported 31 new COVID-19 infections. There are currently 247 active cases in Windsor-Essex, including 11 people who are in hospital. Outbreaks remain active at 15 workplaces, three schools, two shelters, and one retirement home.

So far, 84.3 per cent of local residents ages 12 and up have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine, and 79.2 per cent are fully vaccinated. Third dose booster shots have been administered to 4,414 people considered particularly vulnerable by the province.

tcampbell@postmedia.com

twitter.com/wstarcampbell

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