WELLINGTON COUNTY – Once the novel coronavirus arrived in Canada “COVID hit us very hard and fast,” said Warden Kelly Linton, one year after the pandemic’s effects were first felt in the county.
However, Linton recalls, initial reports of a deadly disease making its mark overseas didn’t hit home right away.
“In late January and into February, we were hearing warnings about an extremely contagious illness spreading across Asia and into Europe, but it still seemed far away,” said Linton.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and reactions began to flow faster.
“For me, it became real when hockey came to a sudden stop,” said Linton, noting local deliberations on a response began right away.
“I remember our first county Emergency Management Team meeting in mid-March.
“We were sitting around the boardroom table (15 people in a small boardroom) talking about a virus we knew little about and trying to figure out if/how we should modify our operations without over-reacting.
“We had no idea that COVID would turn our world upside down and last longer than a year.”
In the early days, Linton said, governments worldwide were taking varied actions to address a completely new virus and healthcare specialists were not always on the same page.
“In many ways, it felt like we were building a plane while we were flying it,” he recalled.
“The health and safety of our residents was always our number one priority.”
Linton explained that early in the process, “we established formal lines of communication between the county and our local health professionals with the most knowledge and experience managing contagious illnesses – Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH).
“Dr. Nicola Mercer and members of her team were invited to participate in all Emergency Management Team meetings. Our actions and decisions, including our local emergency orders, have always been informed by the advice from WDGPH and other health professionals.”
On June 10 public health issued an order requiring businesses to prohibit anyone from entering a business in the region unless they were wearing a mask. Although the order generated considerable negative response from both businesses and citizens, Wellington County issued an order mirroring the one issued by WDGPH two days later.
Over the following weeks and months, more jurisdictions followed suit and on Oct. 3 the Ontario government made masks mandatory in all indoor public spaces, including businesses.
“Dr. Nicola Mercer and her team presented a strong case that mandatory masks would significantly slow the spread of COVID, protect our most vulnerable and allow us to continue to live life without extreme restrictions,” Linton explained.
“The easy way out for myself and the county would have been to do nothing and let Dr. Mercer take all the heat. But that is not real leadership. Issuing our own county order to support her mandatory mask order presented a united front and ensured a consistent message across Wellington County.”
Despite backlash from the public and internal criticism within his own local council, the Centre Wellington mayor said he has never questioned the decision.
“Masks always made sense to me. We are dealing with a highly contagious disease that is being spread person-to-person by airborne droplets. Why wouldn’t we do everything we could to stop the spread at the source?” he stated.
Linton said he has never understood the “rabid anti-mask sentiment” some people display.
“It’s a simple strip of cloth that demonstrates that you care about the well-being of others. The argument that mandatory masks infringe on our personal rights is ludicrous to me.”
A popular sentiment that Linton can identify with is being “sick and tired” of COVID-19.
“I hate the negative impact this has had on my daughter who is in fourth year university and my son who has lost an important year of junior hockey. I hate not being able to have a real face-to-face visit with my parents, my siblings and their families,” he said.
Noting, “I know a lot of people have had to go through much worse things than me,” Linton said he wants to see things back to normal “as soon as we can safely do so.”
Linton said he believes a return to normal life (and not a “new normal,” a phrase he hates) is not far off.
“I truly believe that ‘normal’ is right around the corner. With vaccines starting to come fast and furious, the end of COVID is very near,” he told the Advertiser.
“It is this hope that drives me as Wellington County warden to do whatever I can to support our county team in actively working with public health to get needles in arms as fast as possible.”
Linton noted the county has re-allocated 15 staff (and 10 back-ups) to work with public health staff at vaccination clinics across the region.
“We have also ‘un-retired’ former county operations manager Paul Johnson to quarterback all county vaccination activities,” he added.
Throughout the entire process, Linton said he has “enjoyed the consistent and active support” of mayors across the county, as well as county council itself.
“I absolutely don’t take this support for granted and am extremely grateful for it.”
Linton also noted the Township of Centre Wellington has “come to the plate in a big way” by offering the use of the sportsplex in Fergus as the county’s central mass vaccination site.
“Our Centre Wellington staff have gone above and beyond to work with the county and public health to handle the logistics of efficiently vaccinating thousands,” Linton said.
“The county’s other member municipalities have also been hugely supportive of the vaccination efforts in their communities.”
While the arrival of vaccines brings cause for optimism, Linton acknowledged the threat of third wave of COVID-19 infections.
“It really feels like we are in a race to get as many vaccinated as possible to avoid a third wave. We know that sometimes the best defence is a good offence, and that is why we are focussing significant county resources to support public health in getting as many people vaccinated as possible,” he stated
In addition, Linton pointed out, “We continue to communicate the importance of mask use and physical distancing as the best way to avoid a third wave and further restrictions.
“A third wave will only happen if we get a spike in the number of people who refuse to act responsibly and stop practicing physical distancing and refuse to wear masks. We are at the tail end of this pandemic and avoiding a third wave is in our collective hands.”
Regardless of how quickly the pandemic ends, Linton believes there will be long-term impacts.
“COVID has been so unfair,” he said. “While some individuals, families and businesses have remained largely unscathed, others have been devastated. Some have had to take on extra debt to survive, and this will have a longer-term impact on their financial situation.
“A year with little social interaction has been extremely difficult – especially for some people. It will take some time for all of us to be socially and emotionally healthy again.”
The warden continued, “Unfortunately, government COVID responses have caused a good deal of negativity and division. At a time when we should be trying to get through this tough time together, we have too many people, and too many leaders, who have decided to play the blame game.
“When COVID becomes a distant memory, relationships will have to be mended.”
Linton feels the pandemic has “brought out the best and the worst in people,” including political leaders.
“Wellington County has demonstrated how to provide good leadership. This emergency has helped us focus on what matters most – keep people safe and healthy, continue to provide essential services and support local jobs,” he said.
“Since day one of this pandemic, every county mayor and all members of county council have been united in supporting me as warden and supporting our chief administrative officer and senior management team in making tough decisions during an extremely stressful time.
“I have also witnessed examples of poor leadership where members of council have not supported their leaders or staff making a difficult situation even worse.”
Despite the challenge and tragedy of the past year and the tribulations assuredly ahead, Linton feels there is a path to emerge stronger from the pandemic.
“We have discovered new ways of working and doing business. Local businesses have figured out how to promote and sell their products and services online, lowering their costs and enhancing their market presence,” he explained.
“Companies have discovered that they can conduct effective virtual meetings and that their employees can be productive while they work from home. The positive impact could be more people having a healthier work-life balance as well as reduced overhead costs.
“Personally speaking, I have thoroughly enjoyed spending more time with my family … I want this to continue well after COVID.”
“I have heard the same positive comment from my friends and colleagues, and hopefully, more people will continue to spend more time with their families.
“That would be a very positive result from this negative pandemic.”