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FHS alumnus leads COVID-19 Response Coordination Group for vulnerable populations
By Geron Malbas
With an extensive amount of experience working with emerging and infectious diseases, FHS alumnus Greg Thomas-Reilly has been working on the front-lines of the COVID-19 crisis as the Regional Programme Manager of the COVID-19 Response Coordination Group (RCG) for vulnerable populations. The RCG, a joint initiative of Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health Care, provides a full-spectrum of infection prevention and control supports, such as preventative education (both online and in-person), facility audits and needs assessments, staff education, outbreak management, testing and even recovery after an outbreak.
Originally, Thomas-Reilly joined Providence Health Care as Supervisor of Infection Prevention & Control, but as COVID-19 struck in March, he identified a lack of available infection prevention & control capacity and support in the Long-term Care (LTC) sector. As a result, he met with senior leaders in Vancouver Coastal Health to present ideas on how to bridge his concerns. From there, he began leading a Rapid Response Team for the LTC sector, eventually growing and transforming into the RCG.
“The RCG now has 34 staff and we have worked in every LTC outbreak across the Vancouver Coastal Health Region,” he says. “In addition, this team now supports COVID-19 infection prevention and control in the Downtown Eastside, shelters, single-room occupancies, addiction treatments & detox centres, supportive living and hospices… basically, the most vulnerable populations when it comes to COVID-19.”
In 2008, he completed his Master of Science in Population & Public Health at SFU, learning about key concepts in epidemiology, crisis and risk communications, and determinants of health, which he routinely applies to the COVID-19 response in the vulnerable sector. He also had to opportunity to work at the BCCDC researching Lyme disease under the supervision of Dr. Bonnie Henry, who is currently the Provincial Health Officer for British Columbia. Under the mentorship of leaders like Dr. Henry, he learned to apply theoretical skills to real-life problems, including public communication.
Thomas-Reilly also worked on the front lines during the SARS and Ebola outbreaks, working in Toronto and Liberia respectively.
“From my experience in Toronto I saw, first-hand, the need for specialized and adaptable public health services for vulnerable and marginalized populations, in order to prevent them from falling between the cracks,” he says. “In Liberia, I came to value the importance of education and community engagement. While the RCG that I now lead does focus on responding to and controlling outbreaks, we also put a big emphasis on relationships and engagement, in order to empower frontline staff to detect and respond rapidly to symptomatic individuals or new outbreak situations.”
Keeping attentive to the current pandemic situation also brings to mind how pathogens emerge. In order to stop emerging infections from becoming the new norm, Thomas-Reilly believes that a worldwide desire to change course is required.
“A majority of emerging pathogens are zoonotic in origin, meaning that they can be shared from animals to humans (or vice versa),” he explains. “With climate change driving animals from their natural habitats, and an ever-expanding ecological human footprint, it is inevitable that we will continue to encounter pathogens that are new to us if we continue the path that we (humanity) has been following.”
For students who are passionate about public health and epidemiology, Thomas-Reilly encourages searching for creative solutions and intersections of study when it comes to problem-solving, especially in the context of COVID-19.
“Epidemiology and infection control are both direct applications to infectious diseases, but don’t underestimate the value of other professional specialties in responding to and preventing outbreaks, including communications, education, anthropology, biology and so many others,” he advises. “Learn to keep an open mind.”
As Canadians are staying home to mitigate the spread of the virus and the toll on health care workers and facilities, Thomas-Reilly encourages everyone to realize that they are not powerless during this situation.
“Every single person who chooses to stay at home and act responsibly is a part of the frontline,” he emphasizes. “I know that this is hard, but use this time to take care of yourselves and your neighbours and give some serious reflection on the type of world that we want to live-in when we do emerge on the other side of this pandemic. As we emerge into a new normal, I hope that we will never forget this moment in time and that we continue to re-orient our priorities away from ‘me’ toward ‘we’.”