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Dr. Richard Stanwick retires: He pushed for clean-air, clean-drinking-water laws

Vancouver Island’s chief medical health officer is retiring at age 72 after working in public health in the region since 1995.
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Dr. Richard Stanwick, at Royal Jubilee Hospital Patient Care Centre, holds a bottle of tap water he used to promote the safety of local water supplies during the toxoplasmosis crisis in 1995. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The Island’s top doctor, who delayed his retirement to remain on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, packed up decades of memories Friday.

Dr. Richard Stanwick, who served just over two decades as the Island’s chief medical health officer, left his post on the two-year anniversary of B.C.’s first case of COVID-19.

Stanwick, who pushed for clean air and clean drinking-water laws, thought in ­delaying his retirement he’d see the end of the pandemic.

Instead, he stepped down amid record ­hospitalizations and grave ­concern about the effects of long-COVID and the unintended consequences of pandemic restrictions.

“I never thought I’d be ­leaving at a time where the ­overall life expectancy of the population I took responsibilty for as a public health officer has gone down,” said Stanwick, 72.

“You really can’t leave with a good feeling knowing the population has been so affected, that we are living a shorter lifespan now.”

Beyond the infections, sickness and deaths, COVID-19 has dealt a “general body blow to society” resulting in increased degrees of stress and dislocation and alcohol consumption, deferred health care, blunted educational and social opportunities for youth, and lower life expectancy by seven months, said Stanwick.

Stanwick doesn’t think we are “anywhere near the end of this virus.” While infection numbers may drop off, the “physiological and psychological damage” has yet to fully play out, he said.

Stanwick lost his mother, Carol, last March — predeceased by her husband, Carl, in May 2000 — and saw the effect of pandemic restrictions on both his mother’s social life and on the family’s ability to gather to mourn her death.

“She somewhat served as a reminder for me of how every­one was suffering under the unintended consequence of all the things we were and are doing to control COVID-19,” said Stanwick.

The pediatrician and ­epidemiologist knew the effect the pandemic was having on youth and, with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, has been a strong advocate of keeping schools open. He maintains the province has done one of the best jobs in the world of managing COVID-19.

Stanwick studied at the University of Winnipeg, where he met his wife, Nancy, who became a teacher.

Stanwick worked as a pediatrician in Manitoba between 1979 and 1995, serving as assistant provincial epidemiologist in Manitoba in 1985, then Winnipeg’s medical health officer for five years until 1995.

He became medical health officer for the Capital Regional District in 1995, then chief medical health officer for the Island in 2001.

Stanwick had an abrupt introduction to Victoria on Sept. 1, 1995.

Upon arriving to work on a Friday prior to a long weekend, he was handed three boxes of information and told to prepare for an international press conference the following Tuesday on a toxoplasmosis outbreak in the water supply. The parasitic disease — linked to cat feces or eating undercooked meat and unpasteurized dairy products — infected mothers, causing blindness or brain damage to about a dozen babies on the Island.

Subsequently, Stanwick would tackle issues such as the safety of donated food; the burning of a sea lion at Clover Point; a three-day fire on a Russian supertrawler inside Esquimalt Graving Dock; tropical fungus cryptococcus gattii, which killed at least four people on the Island; and the aerial spraying of BtK to eradicate gypsy moths.

Amongst Stanwick’s proudest accomplishments was his part in the 1996 closure of old Highway 117 that ran directly alongside the Sooke reservoir and the protection of the land surrounding the watershed to preserve a safe supply of drinking water.

He is better known, however, for his precedent-setting Clean Air Bylaw that started in 1999 with the CRD banning smoking in indoor pubs and restaurants, and extended to patios, playgrounds and beaches. In 2018, Stanwick saw to it that it was amended to include vaping and cannabis as equal to tobacco — arguing that marijuana smoke contains 33 of the same carcinogens.

Stanwick was also responsible for shutting down the Montreux eating disorders clinic, operated in Victoria by Peggy Claude-Pierre. It was later determined that Claude-Pierre force-fed clients and kept them against their will. “The last we heard she was somewhere in the Netherlands practising her beliefs,” said Stanwick.

While time proved most of Stanwick’s stands to be progressive, his opposition to sewage treatment, was considered less so.

Stanwick maintains the initial funding, or a portion of it, would have been better spent on reducing the source of raw sewage and storm-water pollutants — including medications and chemicals — being pumped into the ocean before building the $775-million plant that officially opened last year.

“I think, from a public-health perspective, we lost a preventive opportunity,” said Stanwick.

In 2011, the Capital Regional District, under Stanwick’s direction, became the first region in Canada to introduce a bylaw banning minors from using tanning salon beds, to reduce the chances of developing skin cancer later in life. A B.C.-wide ban followed in 2012.

Stanwick also pushed early on for a supervised-injection site for Victoria. Health Canada approved it in 2017 and the next year, the Pandora Supervised Consumption Centre on Pandora Avenue — now called the Harbour — opened. A temporary site for supervised inhalation across the street from the Harbour is now open.

Stanwick regrets that toxic drug poisonings, declared a public health emergency in 2016, is worse today, with 1,724 deaths in 2020, up from 985 in 2019.

Another regret is the vision he long held that, upon retirement, he and close friend, award-winning investigative journalist and former B.C. coroner Barb McLintock, would together track down Claude-Pierre’s latest eating disorders clinic “and finish what we started,” or catch up with the strongest detractors of the smoking bylaw and capture their reflections now.

“But some things were not meant to be,” he said. McLintock died in December 2018 after having thyroid cancer diagnosed.

In a 2005 interview, McLintock said Stanwick was so passionate about public health “that everything else is off the radar. It’s like he’s following a light through a dark forest, all he sees is the beam of light which is that intellectual evidence.”

On Friday, Henry thanked “dear friend and colleague” Stanwick among all those in health care who have helped make decisions around COVID-19 over the past two years and those who provided direct care.

Stanwick can’t quite contemplate life in retirement: “Right now I’m literally running on fumes,” he said. For now, he and his wife plan to explore the Island.

Dr. Murray Fyfe is serving in an interim role as Island’s chief medical health officer until a replacement for Stanwick is found.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com