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COLUMN: Deadly outbreak at Roberta Place can never be forgotten

Journalist drained by reporting daily death toll at facility last year, so switched gears and began telling as many life stories as he could
2021-01-12 Roberta Place RB 2
Roberta Place, located on Essa Road in Barrie's south end, is shown in a file photo.

As a reporter reflecting back on the year, it's often counted and measured by the stories you write. 

One would think that the July tornado would top the list of most memorable stories in 2021, and it certainly was a first for me covering a natural disaster.

The stops and starts of COVID-19 provincial restrictions was also constant throughout the year, but became old hat when mixed in with other stories.

One story  or series of stories  that stuck in my mind immediately when thinking back on the year it actually one that crosses my mind quite often.

The deadly COVID outbreak at the Roberta Place long-term care home in south-end Barrie happened at the start of 2021 and yet is still the story that sat with me the entire year.

And I believe it will sit with me long after this pandemic is over.

The outbreak started Jan. 8 and lasted until Feb. 18. It lasted 41 days and, sadly, claimed 71 lives.

As a reporter, the unfortunate job is having to contact the point person at the facility every day and ask for the most recent update.

Trying to find 41 ways to ask "how many people have died since we last spoke?" is an uncomfortable email to send. It takes a toll and you try to find ways to remember that it's part of the job.

The email response from the media contact would usually come between 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., as they would have to get the most up-to-date figures pertaining to recent infections among staff and residents as well as, of course, the death toll.

There were times I would be so focused on deadlines and needing the information that frustration would kick in if I wasn’t hearing back quickly enough. That would quickly be dismissed within seconds as I remembered their job was much harder than mine.

I would get the information and have to type it up fast to be published, usually as my family was sitting down for dinner. 

Admittedly, I wear my heart on my sleeve most of the time and for the 41 days of reporting on Roberta Place, I would usually be pretty quiet during dinner.

I missed dinner twice during this time when the daily numbers were high enough that I just wanted to go upstairs and shut down for the day.

My wife once came to tell me my plate was on the table and, understandably, left me to type when she noticed tears hitting my keyboard.

I talked to my editor about the toll it was taking and he asked if I should take a break from it, likely knowing I would say no. But we came up with the idea of doing in-depth stories on those who had passed away in an attempt to humanize the reporting. 

It helped me greatly, giving me a sense of doing more than just reporting numbers. 

I was connected to many families thanks to the administration of the Facebook group called Barrie Is Here For You Roberta Place. 

They allowed me to post that I was looking to speak to anyone who wanted to talk about their mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, husband, wife, uncle, aunt and/or friend. We wanted to tell their life stories. 

Not many conversations concluded without me and the person on the other end getting emotional.

One day, this whole thing will end. 

As reporters, we will do reflective stories, anniversary stories, funny and sad stories about life during COVID-19.

I may find an old mask in the drawer and chuckle before throwing it out.

You may crack a joke when you see someone buy a lot of toilet paper at the store.

But I imagine anytime I drive past Roberta Place on Essa Road, from now and for many years from now, I’ll get quiet.

I realize that I already do this. 

We lost 71 people in 41 days in that one facility. 

I hope I will one day cover a story about a commemoration plaque being placed on the grounds.

We may want to forget about these last two years, but Roberta Place is one thing we need to keep remembering.

Shawn Gibson is a reporter at BarrieToday.