Ontario Premier Doug Ford blamed local health officers Tuesday for straggling COVID-19 testing numbers that could delay the province's reopening plans, even as he hinted public parks may soon open.
On Monday, the premier celebrated hitting his government’s latest milestone of 16,000 tests per day, a mark it had struggled to meet since testing problems first emerged in March. But the province fell back down to 10,654 tests per day on Tuesday.
“There’s certain medical officers in certain jurisdictions… some just aren’t performing,” Ford said in his daily briefing to reporters.
“I’m calling them out right now. You’ve got to pick up the pace… I’m not going to name them, you know you who are. Pick your socks up and start doing testing.”
About half of the top officials at the province’s 34 public health units “aren’t even putting the work in as far as I can see,” Ford added.
“We’ve got to hold these people accountable,” he said. “We’re going to have to get on the phone with them and find out what reason, what excuse, they’re going to give us for why they’re not testing.”
Ford’s government has repeatedly set COVID-19 testing goals and failed to meet them. The premier's remarks Tuesday about the testing hangups were a significant departure from statements he made on April 8, when he took responsibility for the problem: “The buck stops here. I’m accountable and I have no problem being held accountable,” Ford said at the time.
Ontario chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams took a softer tone Tuesday, saying there are plenty of issues at play that could look like lack of will from the outside. Some might be struggling to get testing supplies, while others have been working to get enough staff, Dr. Williams said.
“We will talk to them,” Dr. Williams said, referring to local health units where testing numbers have fallen behind.
“We’re going to help them do whatever they need to do.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford previously took responsibility for the province's COVID-19 testing issues on April 8. But on Tuesday, he said half of Ontario's public health units need to "pick your socks up and start doing testing.” #onpoli
Last week, Dr. Williams said the province has the technical capacity to process up to 19,000 tests per day.
As many as half of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, but still capable of spreading the virus, global research shows. It can be difficult to get a clear picture of where the virus is spreading without a robust and widespread testing program, which experts say is crucial for any jurisdiction that wants to begin reopening.
In a statement, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the blame should fall to Ford, not local officials, as the province controls funding for public health units.
“It was shocking to hear Doug Ford throw public health leaders under the bus,” the statement said.
Good communication between politicians, provincial health officials and local health units is crucial for tackling a crisis such as COVID-19, said Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University. And this week, it has seemed that Ford’s messaging — both on the issue of public heath units, and on allowing cottagers to return to their seasonal properties — has contrasted with statements from Dr. Williams, who says the curve of COVID-19 cases has not begun a definite decline.
Differing messages from official to official can be confusing for the public, Sly added.
“Mr. Ford is trying to do the right thing for sure,” Sly said. “His public health officers are trying to do their right thing too… sometimes there’s a little discrepancy between them.”
'It’s a lot easier to hold one person accountable than 34'
In Ontario, much of the COVID-19 testing is overseen by 34 local public health units, which are led by a chief medical officer and are accountable to local health boards.
Other provinces use different systems — in Alberta, for example, public health is administered by one centralized agency that is organized into five geographic zones. On Tuesday, Ford said his government will be looking at moving to a different, likely more centralized model, once the pandemic is over.
“It’s a lot easier to hold one person accountable than 34,” Ford said.
Ford’s government had previously been working on a review of public health units, but that review is now on hold due to the pandemic, Dr. Williams said.
The Progressive Conservative government had made retroactive cuts to public health units last year, but later reversed them. And in January, the government shifted 30 per cent of the expense of public health programs to municipalities, though it also pledged to give extra funding for the first year to municipalities that were facing more than a 10 per cent increase of their current costs. (The province used to provide either 75 or 100 per cent of funding for public health programs.)
Centralized public health systems are a more common approach in Canada than the one Ontario is currently using. Such a system could make it easier to coordinate crisis response, Sly said.
“That’s something for the post-mortem, once all this is done,” he added.
Parks could reopen before May long weekend
On Tuesday, Ford also hinted that public parks that were shuttered as COVID-19 worsened may be able to reopen by the May long weekend.
The premier publicly mulled the idea Monday of allowing cottagers to go to their seasonal properties for Victoria Day, which is May 18 this year, if COVID-19 case numbers significantly decline.
On Tuesday, in a response to a question about what could be done for apartment dwellers who can’t access parks or afford a second home to escape to, Ford said Ontarians should be able to use public green spaces soon.
"We'll have some good announcements moving forward this week,” the premier said.