London Health Sciences Centre CEO has travelled to U.S. five times since pandemic began

The head of the largest hospital in southwestern Ontario has travelled outside of Canada five times since the COVID-19 pandemic began, including most recently over Christmas while staff were working to contain outbreaks at two London hospitals and case counts were climbing across the region. 

London Health Sciences Centre’s President and CEO Dr. Paul Woods travelled to Michigan December 19 to visit family and returned Dec. 25, the hospital said in a statement.  

In November, Woods scolded hospital staff for “unacceptable” behaviour such as not maintaining physical distancing, and said those who work at LHSC must hold themselves to a higher standard. 

The Christmas trip was the fifth Woods has taken since the pandemic started. 

“Hindsight will always be 20/20 and I cannot turn back the clock. What I can do is take accountability for my decision to visit with immediate family out-of-country and fully apologize. Please accept my deepest regret for my actions,” Woods said in a statement released Friday afternoon. 

Each of his trips was approved by the hospital’s board. 

“The Board of Directors is aware Dr. Woods continued to travel for personal reasons given the separation from his immediate family and the Board supports his continued leadership of LHSC,” said Amy Walby, chair of LHSC’s Board of Directors. 

CBC London had contacted board members and LHSC Thursday when sources first revealed that trips had occurred. At the time, sources say there was no plan to make the international travel, which has been discouraged by federal and provincial politicians for months, public. 

The statement also included a message from Woods who says he will no longer be travelling until federal rules restricting non-essential travel are lifted.

I understand that my travel to see family could undoubtedly cause frustration given my repeated asks for adherence to public health measures.– Dr. Paul Woods in a statement to LHSC staff

Woods is a Canadian citizen with a green card to work in the U.S. The hospital says his family is in the U.S. and he lives alone here in Canada, calling that “extenuating circumstances.”

In November, one month before travelling for the holidays, Woods wrote an all-staff memo critical of employees who break public health guidelines.

Woods told staff “we must set ourselves to a higher standard when it comes to living and modelling public health guidelines both inside and outside our workplace,” he wrote on Nov. 19.

“Willfully choosing to not adhere to our critical safety practices while at work may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” 

At the time, the outbreak at University Hospital was starting to spread having reached two units. By the time it was resolved, about one month later as Woods travelled to the U.S., it had reached 11 wards and killed 26 people.

An ambulance crew sanitizes a gurney after taking a patient to University Hospital in London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC)

LHSC has said it will not comment further on the matter. 

Woods is not the first hospital CEO to have travelled outside of the country in recent weeks. Dr. Thomas Stewart from St. Joseph’s Health System in Hamilton vacationed in the Dominican Republic over the holidays.

The hospital network’s board of directors confirmed Thursday that it had parted ways with Dr. Stewart but not until after staff and the community had expressed outrage.

Dr. Woods was previously based in Livonia, Michigan before signing a 5-year contract with LHSC that began in 2018. His base salary is $495,000. The 2019 Sunshine lists states his earnings are $605,000, including salary and benefits.

LHSC said in the statement that Woods followed public health guidelines when he returned from his trips, driving across the border, and quarantining upon his return.

Statement to staff

Ten minutes before the statement was sent to media, Woods sent a memo to staff. It reads, in part: 

“Later today, you may see reports in the media regarding my personal travel to the United States five times throughout the pandemic. As many of you may know, I live alone in Ontario; my immediate family resides in the United States where I have green card status and worked previously before assuming my position at London Health Sciences Centre.

I want to acknowledge the discrepancy this travel implies between the actions I have asked you to follow and those I chose to take. I have often implored you to set the standard for our community, and while without exception I followed federal quarantine requirements upon my return to Ontario, I understand that my travel to see family could undoubtedly cause frustration given my repeated asks for your adherence to public health measures.

“Hindsight will always be 20/20 and I cannot turn back the clock. What I can do is take accountability for my decision to visit with immediate family out of country and fully apologize. Please do not let my actions deter you from continuing to set the example in our community; LHSC is far greater than one individual and now, more than ever, our community will look to you. 

“I will no longer be traveling until federal restrictions limiting non-essential travel are lifted. Please accept my deepest regret for the impact my actions may have on you and your colleagues.” 

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