Could the former St. Thomas psychiatric hospital go from movie set to front-line player in the COVID-19 pandemic?

city_scope_logo-cmykLet’s pray it never reaches this stage – and to date, there is no indication St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital is about to be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients – however, the president of OPSEU is urging the province “to look for creative ways to combat the spread of the coronavirus.”
Warren ‘Smokey’ Thomas is urging the Doug Ford government to consider opening portions of previously shuttered regional mental health centres including the facility south of St. Thomas and the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls to ease a potential capacity crisis in the healthcare system.
In a media release issued last month, Thomas noted, “They can be used for currently hospitalized alternative care patients or as dedicated COVID-19 centres to relieve pressure on our hospitals. Let’s be proactive. Now is the time for action.”

We caught up with Thomas earlier this week (April 6) and he indicated he had spoken to government officials about the vacant complexes.
“They said they thought it was a great idea. And they were looking, but I don’t know the outcome.” He continued, “Sometimes if they’ve been mothballed too long . . . I don’t know what kind of shape it’s in. But I know they’re looking.
“Other people in the government had already been thinking the same thing. So I know they’re scouring lots of places for a lot of options.”
St. Thomas psych hospitalElgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek confirmed there have been discussions regarding these mothballed centres, including talks with St. Thomas Mayor Joe Preston.
“He reached out to me a few weeks ago about possibly accessing part of the site for part of their emergency plans and I connected with the government. So the Minister of Municipal Affairs Steve Clark has approved access to the building.”
Yurek added, “The government’s working with St. Thomas for further emergency plans at this point, and I think they’re getting ready just in case.”

“I think at this point it remains a viable part of dealing with the pandemic and that we have this option to use it if necessary.”

He indicated a certain amount of investment would be required to bring a portion of the facility up to a workable standard.
“There are certain parts of it that they maintain better than others. You know, those details have been worked out with St. Thomas to see what the cost would be and what the government would be wanting to put into that as well.”
Of late the centre has seen service as a movie and television backdrop and earned some dollars for the province.
And Yurek confirmed, “I do know people have been kicking the tires prior to purchasing that property. So there is interest in that down the road, but I think at this point it remains a viable part of dealing with the pandemic and that we have this option to use it if necessary.”


With the recent death of Coun. Linda Stevenson, city council at its Tuesday (April 14) meeting will officially declare her seat to be vacant.
Under the Ontario Municipal Act, the city now has 60 days to appoint an individual to fill the vacancy for the rest of the term or hold a by-election.
The cost of holding a by-election – estimated at $95,000 – plus the current COVID-19 state of emergency and lack of facilities available as polling stations mean this option is a non-starter.
Council then has the option of appointing an eligible individual to fill the post.
In the past, a vacancy has been filled by former members of council, mayoral/councillor candidates or any qualified elector.
That councillor candidate could be the next highest polling individual in the previous municipal election. If such is the case, that would be John Laverty who finished less than 400 votes behind Coun. Jim Herbert.
During his campaign, Laverty stressed the city needs to focus on affordable housing, jobs and mental health issues.
Tuesday’s council meeting will be live-streamed beginning at 5 p.m.

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Another vital reminder of the significant role railways played in St. Thomas and Elgin county appears set to vanish in the not-to-distant future.
CN has filed notice it is putting its Cayuga Subdivision – that stretch of track east from St. Thomas to Tillsonburg and Delhi – up for sale at the end of the month.
Until recently the Ontario Southland Railway – which leased the line from CN starting in 2013 – had been operating limited service over the Cayuga Sub.

ONTARIO SOUTHLANDJPGBut the OSR, likewise, has filed notice it will discontinue service on the line as of the end of this month.
There are few customers on the line, however, the ethanol plant in Aylmer will now have to rely solely on trucks.
The OSR will continue to run a service into St. Thomas along the 32-mile CP St. Thomas Subdivision to Woodstock. Customers in the city include Messenger Freight and Factor Gas and the OSR will serve the Element 5 plant now under construction in the city’s industrial park.
In a release, CN indicated “it has reviewed the volumes of traffic moving on this Line and based on traffic volumes and needed investments, decided not to resume operations and proceed with the discontinuance process.”
The next step is to advertise the line is for sale for any parties wishing to continue operating a service. If there are no offers, CN will offer the line to all levels of government at net salvage value.
It’s been a difficult couple of decades for the former high-speed line cutting through southern Ontario.
The former St. Thomas and Eastern Railway operated the Cayuga Sub. from 1998 to 2013 before turning it back to CN because the “required investments would not permit the continued operation.”
As was the case with the line running west out of St. Thomas, no operator or municipal government was interested in the CN cast off.
That right-of-way is now owned by Entegrus as a possible utility corridor, with a short stretch from the west end of the St. Thomas Elevated Park re-purposed as a trail.
Making the city’s new branding, The Railway City, more a tribute to the past than a milepost to the future.

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There are countless heroes out there battling the COVID-19 pandemic on the front lines. And, in the last week, we’ve seen emergency personnel and, most recently, farmers pay tribute to the doctors, nurses and support staff at St. Thomas Elgin General Hospital with colourful convoys circling the hospital.
Another group of heroes – Premier Doug Ford calls them extraordinary – are starting to get a share of recognition in an entirely different fashion.
In many instances, they are shunned here and across North America when stopping to rest, get gas and food or use washrooms, truckers got a break on the basic necessities when earlier this month Ford promised to keep all 23 ONroute travel plazas open for their use.
This including washrooms with enhanced cleaning. Portable washrooms will also be provided at 32 truck inspection stations.
(Full disclosure, one of my sons hauls for Grace Transport out of Strathroy).
wtfcThe move comes after a conference call with trucking organizations like the Women’s Trucking Federation, drew attention to the difficulties drivers are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Federation CEO Shelley Uvanile-Hesch says truckers do not need the added stress of finding washrooms, showers and food outlets that are open to them.
We talked at length with Uvanile-Hesch about the desperate situation many truckers are facing.
A trucker herself, she pulls no punches.
“People as a general rule, don’t realize that 98 per cent of the time, I find myself in an 80-square- foot box, right. I don’t come into contact with people. No, you know, you have more chances of getting COVID-19 going to the grocery store than you do from me in a truck.”
She continued, “So now drivers are being extra cautious. They’ve got extra things they are carrying, you know, spraying everything down before they used it.”
Not all truck stops and hotels are giving truckers the cold shoulder, stressed Uvanile-Hesch.
Shelley Uvanile-Hesch“So much that’s coming out is all negative and then it stops. It’s like, mainstream media isn’t giving the whole story. Right. We have some places that are going above and beyond. We’ve got hotel chains that are saying, ‘Hey, come here for 30 minutes. Use our showers. It’s clean.’
“Some of them have food. They’re feeding drivers for free. So, maybe by promoting some of the companies that are actually doing some good, yeah, it’ll get other ones to come on board.”
Those outlets that are going above and beyond for truckers are getting recognition on the Women’s Trucking Federation Facebook page.
If that’s not bad enough, Uvanile-Hesch listed cases of price gouging taking place at some truck stops.
“Look at a personalized bottle of hand sanitizer for $16. Up to $40 for a bigger-sized bottle.
“I think their message is getting out there and stores are recanting and I think the fact that Premier Ford actually outed a company by name.”

“Everybody’s depending on me, I have to keep going. You know, I’m gonna be safe.”

“Because when times are good, they’re sure quick to take their money. And, you know, now that the times are a little bit tougher, and these are the people that are delivering the goods, you know, how dare they say, ‘Hey, you’re not wanted here'”
But then there are the displays of support from people along the road giving the thumbs up to truckers in appreciation of their efforts in keeping shelves stocked and plants and factories supplied with the parts and raw materials required to produce goods.
“The drivers are reporting and sharing pictures of Bristol board signs kids have made up, ‘Thank you, drivers.’ You know, things like that are really uplifting to the drivers.”
The job is stressful enough at the best of times, reminds Uvanile-Hesch.
“Now we have all these added things to worry about with the COVID-19. You have your family at home that is calling you because they’re worried.
“Wives or husbands saying, ‘You know, I don’t want you out there anymore. I want you to come home.
“Well, you’re a driver saying, ‘I can’t honey. Everybody’s depending on me, I have to keep going. You know, I’m gonna be safe.’
“But imagine constantly getting that from your family on a daily basis now.”
She had to cut the conversation off at that point with another government call to deal with.
But not before throwing this out there to ponder.
“What do we do as a nation to keep the trucks moving? Because we need them. And as this gets farther along, you’re going to need them more.”
Yes, there are some bad actors out there and no shortage of horror stories.
But when it comes to delivering all those goods the last mile of the way, you best thank a trucker for ensuring those items are there when you need them.
Oh, and if you know of businesses that are rolling out the carpet for truckers, let us know here and we’ll pass along the info.

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