Many Torontonians remember the confusion, the masks and the fear. For Dr. Alain Sotto, chief physician with the Ontario Power Generation (OPG), the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in March 2003 was a particular challenge—perhaps the biggest of his career. “I had to become an infectious disease expert overnight in dealing with an unknown virus that nobody had any expertise in,” he recalls.

As chief physician, Sotto was asked to be the subject matter expert on an OPG SARS Task Force. The task force met twice a day for three months, even on weekends. Its first order of business was to communicate via email with the company’s 13,000 employees. “To me, the single most important thing to say was, ‘We’re on top of this; we’re monitoring the situation very closely,’” he says. The communication continued, with daily (and sometimes twice daily) email updates during those three months.

But while the frequent communications may have helped reassure employees, the fear factor remained. “We had to take contingency measures to make sure we were protecting our employees and not putting them in harm’s way,” says Sotto. OPG procured masks, gloves and hand sanitizers within the first week of the crisis, just in case it worsened. It even designated one of the elevators in the building that houses OPG—which connects to the third floor of Mount Sinai Hospital, right in the SARS hot zone—solely for those visiting Mount Sinai. “Nobody wanted to get into an elevator or be within three feet of somebody who might have been infected.”

For many corporations, “the SARS crisis made the case for having an occupational medical department,” says Sotto, “to sort through all the medical misinformation for credible and practical information coming from a doctor.”

The crisis also taught employers about infection control, as well as the importance of keeping employees informed with accurate facts and ensuring that supplies (masks, etc.) are available and accessible.

Following the outbreak, OPG took the lessons it learned from the crisis and created an HR Emergency Support Team. “We had all of that knowledge,” explains Sotto. “We needed to channel it and put it into a procedure so that the next time another infection hit, we would be prepared.” The next year, OPG had several successful infectious disease drills.

For those three months in 2003, Sotto put in many 18-hour days and gave up a few weekends. But he says the lessons learned from SARS are invaluable. “Had we not gone through this crisis, we would not have been as prepared for H1N1. In fact, our pandemic planning activities were seen by many infectious disease experts as the industry standard to follow. You can’t put a price on that.”

SARSFEST 2003

SARS hit Toronto hard, but the city soon rebounded. What started as a benefit rock concert—suggested by The Rolling Stones to help revive Toronto’s flagging economy and tourist industry—became the largest outdoor ticketed event in Canadian history.

What: Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto—a.k.a. Toronto Rocks, SARSStock, SARSfest, SARS-a-palooza…

Where: Downsview Park in Toronto

When: July 30, 2003

Why: it rocked Between 450,000 and 500,000 people of all ages came to show their support for the city Performers The Rolling Stones, Blue Rodeo, Justin Timberlake, Rush, AC/DC…

Fun Fact: Pop idol Justin Timberlake was booed and pelted with water bottles by unimpressed hard-core rockers

Brooke Smith is managing editor of Benefits Canada. brooke.smith@rci.rogers.com

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Copyright © 2019 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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