Until recently, the Twitter account belonging to Dr. Keith Stewart, a senior leader with Toronto’s University Health Network, included a handful of pictures from his winter trip to Arizona.
One showed him lying in the sunshine with his eyes closed. Another showed him hiking in the desert.
“Much as I am enjoying living back in Toronto I gotta say that the desert air feels pretty good again,” he wrote in a post.
On Tuesday night, the pictures disappeared from his account.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Stewart, director of the Princess Margaret Cancer Program and UHN’s vice-president, cancer, told the Star he had deleted them after seeing headlines about Dr. Thomas Stewart. The CEO of two major hospital systems in Ontario had resigned from a provincial COVID-19 advisory group after acknowledging he recently took a “non-essential” vacation to the Dominican Republic.
“I didn’t want people to have the wrong impression that I was just off gallivanting on the beach,” said the UHN’s Stewart, who has no relation to the other Stewart, explaining that the main reason he and his wife travelled to Arizona over Christmas and New Year’s was to tend to his wife’s parents, who have Parkinson’s disease.
“They’re struggling quite a bit.”
The Arizona trip is just the latest in an ongoing series of revelations in recent days of politicians and other high-profile leaders who have travelled during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the incidents have resulted in public outrage and resignations.
While some individuals travelled purely for leisure, others, including Stewart, say they did so for personal or family reasons.
While Stewart acknowledged a need to show respect for health workers on the front lines — “If you’re just going on holiday, this is probably not the best time to take it” — he said there can be “compelling” reasons to travel during the pandemic.
“I think there’s a grey area. There’s compelling reasons to travel if you have to, particularly when family’s involved.”
But Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University, said Stewart should’ve exercised better discretion, given his leadership role in the medical community.
Evans suggested Stewart’s wife could’ve travelled by herself, if it was serious.
“To me, it just sends all the wrong messages. That’s my perspective,” he said.
“What you do is a reflection of your perception of equity with others. Not everybody has the wherewithal to just hop on a plane and travel down there.”
Plus, he added, the United States is a “Dumpster fire” right now.
“Of all places, the United States? … Cases are crazy. You’re going to one of the countries where the number of infections is sky high. Any sort of contact down there is going to be considered high risk.”
Dr. David Fisman, a University of Toronto epidemiologist, agreed.
“To me, part of being a good citizen and a leader is following public health guidance meant to protect all of us.”
Stewart, who was appointed to his UHN position last June and described in a news release as a “renowned multiple myeloma clinician and researcher,” returned from Arizona on Sunday and is currently in quarantine.
Prior to his appointment, he had spent many years with the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. He still owns a home there, which is occupied by his in-laws.
Stewart told the Star, in hindsight, he would “think more carefully” about taking a trip now but that he has no regrets about his decision.
“My wife’s parents are there. They were having health issues and we had other things to clean up and just took advantage of the down time,” he said.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong. I think I had good reasons to be there. I talked about it with my senior leadership and said, ‘What do you think?’ They said, ‘If you’ve got family issues, you should go.’ So I felt very open about it, transparent. I still don’t feel I did anything bad. But I understand the optics, why people would say, ‘You should be at the desk.’”
Stewart said while he was in Arizona he kept in contact with his administrative staff and participated in COVID-19-related calls.
“It wasn’t like we took our eyes off the ball.”
Gillian Howard, a UHN spokesperson, confirmed in an email Stewart’s trip was “discussed with UHN leadership and was considered unique, in that there is a family (that) has been separated by a move, with family health issues a consideration. While there was some risk, Dr. Stewart quarantined upon return to Canada.”
Howard added: “We encouraged everyone to follow public health guidelines before the holidays and made this clear in a communication to everyone on our email system.”
Asked what he thought about other high-profile leaders who had travelled over the holidays, Stewart said some politicians who had posted social media messages in an apparent attempt to disguise their travels clearly demonstrated “bad behaviour.”
He also said it was “probably bad judgment” on the part of Dr. Tom Stewart, the chief executive of hospital systems in Hamilton and Niagara, to have vacationed in the Caribbean. (In a public apology this week, that other Stewart acknowledged, “Everyone should be avoiding non-essential travel now, including me.” Late Wednesday, it was reported he was out as CEO in Niagara.)
Upon seeing those headlines Tuesday night, Dr. Keith Stewart said he decided to look back at some his previous Twitter posts from Arizona.
“I thought about it. If I take it down, it’ll probably look bad. But on the other hand, leaving it up, if there’s anybody with malevolent intent, they might want to use that,” he said.
“It’s funny. As I was going to bed last night, I told my wife … ‘Don’t be surprised if this becomes an issue.’”