June 21, 2024

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Board of Health ‘strongly oppose’ closure of Kingston’s Public Health Ontario lab

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The Public Health Ontario Laboratory on Barrie Street in Kingston. Google Maps image.

The Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) Board of Health passed a motion at its meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, to “strongly oppose” the closure of the local Public Health Ontario Laboratory in Kingston. 

Dr. Piotr Oglaza, Medical Officer of Health for KFL&A Public Health, reminded the board that the Office of the Auditor-General’s audit on Public Health Ontario, released in December 2023, included a discussion on recommendations by Public Health Ontario to “streamline” regional laboratory sites, including the local Public Health Ontario Laboratory site in Kingston, and discontinue private well water testing across the province.

“To ‘streamline’ in this case means effectively to close,” stated Oglaza. 

Oglaza made it clear that the public should understand that KFL&A Public Health is a separate entity from the laboratory in question; the latter is run by Public Health Ontario (PHO). But, he stressed, “this laboratory [is] a critical component of our health infrastructure in general; it handles testing, [and] it’s essential to provide timely diagnostic and surveillance services necessary for safeguarding public health.”

“To the best of our knowledge, neither local Public Health agencies nor residents of rural communities relying on well water testing currently done by Public Health Ontario Laboratories have been consulted regarding the profound negative impact of these changes,” he said.

Furthermore, Oglaza pointed out the proposed closure of “our local Public Health Ontario laboratory in Kingston would have a significant negative effect… I believe that this site… has been in this region or in Kingston for over 100 years. So there is a long-standing established presence and partnerships in the communities here.”

“Its closure would impact the local access to timely diagnostic services and also impact the timing and timeliness of decisions both in health care and in public health,” he continued, giving an example of how, if there were cases of illness at a long-term care home, KFL&A Public Health might rely on “that very quick turnaround time and quick transport time to get the specimen to the lab, to get answers about whether [the home] is in an influenza outbreak — which then enables us to recommend additional intervention to control that outbreak through the deployment of antibiotic and antiviral medications.”

“This is a very concrete, specific example of how having that lab supporting our region is so critical,” Oglaza said emphatically.

The laboratory “also plays a vital role in detecting and responding to infectious diseases, monitoring health trends, and informing public health actions,” he said. For example, “a very prominent, critical role of this local laboratory showed during the COVID-19 response when we were able to provide rapid diagnostics and manage the pandemic. This local laboratory played a crucial role in that critical time, and its closure will severely undermine our ability to effectively address any future public health emergency, and outbreaks, in a timely fashion.”

A strong laboratory system with surge capacity is part of the future vision of a stronger and more resilient Public Health system, as outlined by the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s 2022 Report on “Ensuring Public Health Preparedness for Infectious Outbreaks and Pandemics,” he noted.

“The closure would also result in the loss of critical expertise and jobs in the area.”

Additionally, Oglaza said that the laboratory “serves as a hub for ongoing research and surveillance activities, contributing valuable insights that support decision-making at both local and regional levels” with its partnerships with Public Health Units (like KFL&A Public Health or Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Public Health), as well as partnerships with post-secondary institutions, and hospital systems. The lab serves “over 570,000 residents in the area,” he said.

“Without access to these essential resources, we would face increased delays, as samples would need to be shipped hours away, [which would diminish] timeliness in public health actions during rapidly changing situations, and could lead to poor health outcomes for our residents,” said Oglaza. 

He also pointed out that the lab serves not only KFL&A, but the broader region as well, noting that “when we have our discussions about the tri-board and potential merger, that lab has, for decade,s supported the entire region of over 570,000 residents. So it’s even more important to have that critical local [and] regional partner here in the region, as we look at strengthening public health through the merger.”

Board member David Pattenden, former CEO of the Ontario Medical Association and a member of the Queen’s University Board of Trustees and the Board of Directors for Kingston Health Sciences Centre, asked Oglaza who is pushing for the closure of the laboratory.

Oglaza responded, “My understanding is… that the initiative was from the PHO, not from the auditor general. The PHO was trying to do that before, but at the time, it didn’t get the approval from the Ministry [of Health].”

“It’s a dollar-based attempt,” Pattenden stated flatly. “They are arguing dollars… What else can they argue? Nobody can argue that [closing the lab is] not bad. That is common sense.”

Chair Wes Garrod expressed agreement, pointing out that if the closure happens, “locally, we are going to have to pick up the cost of sending samples to Toronto or Ottawa. And the time factor involved… and if you have bad weather and the like, it’s ridiculous… The only way you can get samples tested is they have to be delivered to a lab. So who is going to deliver them in a timely manner?… As far as I’m concerned, they’re totally ignoring that aspect of it.”

Pattenden noted that the “diagnostic process of the in-hospital system [has improved]. I don’t know if they have the capacity to take on additional loads, but they’ve got almost instantaneous turnaround for in-hospital requests.”

“I think that’s a good point,” agreed Oglaza. “My understanding is that the tests that are conducted at the local lab site in Kingston are above and beyond what the hospital is doing… Any test that would be through primary care [providers] on diseases of local significance… would be going through that lab.”

Dr. Hugh Guan, Associate Medical Officer of Health for KFL&A Public Health, added, “The hospital doesn’t have the infrastructure introduced for diseases that really concern our whole area, like syphilis testing, which cannot be done in the hospital lab. It has to be done in the [Public Health Ontario Laboratory].”

Thus, he said, losing that lab would essentially mean syphilis screening turnaround time would get longer.

Of interest to rural residents, Guan also pointed out that the local lab is a “big centre for well water testing, and I can’t see the hospital labs doing private well [water] tests.”

After a brief period of further discussion, the  Board of Health passed a motion to “strongly oppose” the closure of the local Public Health Ontario Laboratory in Kingston and send correspondence stating such to Dr. Michael Sherar, President and Chief Executive Officer, Public Health Ontario. Further, a copy of the letter will be forwarded to the Honourable Sylvia Jones, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, and to Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Health and Assistant Deputy Minister of Public Health.

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