Amidst skyrocketing daily infections as the province enters a sixth wave of the pandemic, the independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, formed nearly two years ago to provide scientific advice to the province based on pandemic data, is being folded into the arm’s-length government agency Public Health Ontario.
Leaders of the table say they believe the panel will maintain its independence, which members and government critics have said is critical to its role.
“I’m fully assured that we will continue to be independent and transparent,” said Dr. Brian Schwartz, vice president of Public Health Ontario and co-chair of the science table, in an interview with the Star. “The success of the science table since June of 2020 has been because we can present the data and the evidence uneditorialized, unfettered and with the application to Ontario.
“Our members have the academic freedom to speak their minds and when it comes to applying the evidence, we will be posting the evidence as we always have,” he added.
In a release Thursday, science table co-chair Steini Brown said making PHO the new and permanent home of the table provides an “opportunity for the table to continue making important contributions to Ontario’s response to COVID-19, as well as continuing to foster the collaboration between government, public health and academic partners.”
The science table has up until now been overseen by the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. The transition to PHO takes effect on April 4.
The move comes as the province experiences an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 new daily infections of COVID, as calculated by the science table from virus wastewater readings, and increased hospitalizations.
Throughout the pandemic, the science table, and in particular its scientific director Dr. Peter Jüni, became known for providing unvarnished, sometimes blunt, assessments of where the pandemic was headed in Ontario. (Jüni is resigning in the late spring to take up a position at the University of Oxford.)
The science table’s 35 scientists and doctors — all contributing time on a voluntary basis (with the exception of Jüni who was seconded part-time from his job as director of the Applied Health Research Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital and professor of medicine at U of T) — have also produced reports and analyses on such wide-ranging topics as burnout in health-care workers, vaccines strategies to address inequities, approaches to keep schools open and vaccine passports.
That’s in addition to keeping track of a host of public health indicators, including caseloads, test positivity, hospital and ICU occupancy, risk of contracting COVID-19 by vaccination status and virus wastewater signals.
The table’s contributions to regular modelling presentations at Queen’s Park became must-watch events.
It was that direct, straight-talk approach that has made the science table a success, said Dr. Art Slutsky, a professor of medicine at U of T and a member of the table. And it’s that approach he doesn’t want to see lost under the umbrella of government.
“I don’t know yet how it’s going to work out. I think there are things that can be put into place that could ensure to some extent that the independence (of the table) takes place,” he said. “I’d like to see it be very clear that when the table comes up with findings that we would be able to let the public know about it. And that someone high up at PHO can’t say hmm, I’m not sure we can send it out. If that happens, that’s not acceptable.”
The transition will see the science table get a new permanent home at PHO, which will oversee the panel’s operation. Thursday’s press release noted that PHO and the science table will develop new terms of reference to ensure the table can “continue providing credible and independent scientific and technical advice to inform government and the broader public as Ontario transitions to recovery and to help prepare for and respond to future public health emergencies.”
Schwartz said the table’s mandate is a good fit with PHO, which itself was established as an independent scientific agency to provide advice to government.
Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at U of T, and a member of the science table, said the current model is unsustainable, primarily due to a lack of funds.
“It needs to have a home, absent somebody with deep pockets who could come to the table and say, ‘here, I’m willing to support your group’s work.’ Although it’s largely voluntary, it does require some support,” he said. “And so when you think about that, you have to say, where can this land?”
Morris said independence and transparency are most important to members of the science table. “We’ve been told that that will be preserved.”
NDP health critic France Gélinas (Nickel Belt) lauded the table as a “great help” through the pandemic, but said folding it into PHO “will be a step backwards in the level of trust that people have into public health and public health directors at a time when we’re entering the sixth wave.”
At the same time, she said the move will likely benefit the government agency, which has experienced an exodus of employees and senior executives in both the years leading up to, and during, the pandemic.
In July 2020, just as the province was recovering from the first wave, PHO’s then-president and CEO Dr. Peter Donnelly announced he would be stepping down from the role after taking a medical leave in April of that year and returning to his home country of the U.K.
In December 2020, Dr. Shelley Deeks, who made headlines when she revealed that the provincial government had rejected PHO’s recommendations when bringing in its colour-coded COVID-19 public health restriction plan, left to take a job as Nova Scotia’s Public Health Surveillance Medical Officer of Health.
And just last fall, Dr. Vanessa Allen, PHO’s then-chief of medical microbiology who spearheaded Ontario’s COVID testing and genomic sequencing, left to take up a position at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Liberal health critic John Fraser (Ottawa South) said he also had concerns about what impact the science table’s move into PHO would have on its independent voice.
“I just don’t see the value in it for the public. Their advice has been independent, straightforward, has been very clearly communicated by people like Peter Jüni and Steini Brown,” Fraser said.
While he understands such concerns, Jüni said they are overblown.
“I see that the co-chairs and the entire science table takes this very seriously and I really don’t believe the table would have any raison d’être, if these principles of transparency and independence would not continue to be followed. Then the table would basically lose its function,” he said.
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