June 20, 2024

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Possible closure of public health labs, including Sault’s, ‘short-sighted and dangerous’

5 min read

There is also concern about a years-old proposal to phase out testing of private drinking water systems, such as wells

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Trillium, a Village Media website devoted to covering provincial politics at Queen’s Park.

Opposition parties and union workers are raising concerns at Queen’s Park this week about the possible closure of some public health labs across the province, warning that such a move could “undermine” the province’s ability to detect and stop the spread of disease. 

“It will be short-sighted and dangerous,” said JP Hornick, president of OPSEU, which represents government and public sector workers, at a press conference on Wednesday morning. “These labs are a vital part of our public health infrastructure — closing them will undermine our ability to detect and prevent the spread of disease and compromise our response to future health crises.”

The concerns over the possible closures stem in part from the auditor general’s annual report in December, which included a value-for-money audit on Public Health Ontario (PHO). The agency provides scientific and technical advice and operates 11 public health labs. 

The report cited a 2017 “modernization plan” proposal PHO and Ministry of Health staff worked on together that included the gradual closure of six of the 11 public health labs — Hamilton, Kingston, Orillia, Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie and Timmins — the removal of 20 tests, restricting eligibility for 12 tests and the “gradual discontinuation of private drinking water testing.” If these six labs were to close, that would leave labs in Toronto, London, Ottawa, Sudbury and Thunder Bay. 

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“The most recent iteration of this modernization plan, presented by Public Health Ontario to the Ministry in January 2023, included the same plan to consolidate sites, but instead focused on discontinuing its testing for H. pylori, which is not a disease of public health significance, and again recommended the gradual discontinuation of private drinking water testing,” the auditor general’s report stated.

The auditor general recommended that PHO and the ministry “update and implement a plan within 12 months to streamline public health laboratory operations,” with PHO accepting the recommendation. 

“Upon receipt of ministry approval to proceed, Public Health Ontario will commence the phased implementation of the plan. We will work closely with our stakeholders throughout the implementation process to communicate changes in service delivery and minimize service disruptions,” the agency wrote in a response that was included in the auditor general’s report. 

On its website, PHO states that it provides testing for E. coli and coliforms (bacteria found in sewage, animal waste and soil) in wells or other private drinking water systems. 

NDP MPP for Sudbury Jamie West said that while the water testing is currently free for residents, if the government eliminated this program, it would cost well water users around $150 to test their water through a private lab.

“When you’re talking about areas that rely on well water and people who are on fixed incomes, or people who make minimum wage, or people in precarious work, when they’re not able to have easy access to free testing of their water, they make choices where they don’t have a test,” said West. “And the outcomes of this are you’re going to end up with people being sick, and unfortunately, if it’s like Walkerton, people dying. We can’t afford to have this happen.”

Casey McGuire, who works in PHO’s Ottawa lab and is an executive member of OPSEU’s blood services and diagnostics sector, said people would generally have their water tested twice a year — in the spring and before the winter. 

McGuire said all 11 PHO labs do well water testing and that people typically get results within 24 to 48 hours. 

Asked about the possibility of cutting such testing, Health Minister Sylvia Jones said in the legislature on Tuesday and Wednesday that “there is no one in the province of Ontario or in this legislature who believes that putting well water testing at risk is on the table. I want to be very clear on that matter.”

She went on to note that the ministry funds PHO’s testing of private drinking water systems and that the ministry “has not made any decisions about changes to the provincial well water testing program, including which laboratories conduct testing of water samples.”

But Liberal MPP John Fraser voiced some skepticism about her remarks.

“That’s a euphemism for, ‘We’re gonna do it later when it’s not going to impact two byelections that are going on right now,'” said Fraser to reporters after question period where the minister made her comments.

“I don’t trust this government, because we just had a flip-flop,” he said referring to the government’s reversal of its announced changes to the UP Express train service. “Today they’re saying, ‘Well no, we’re not doing anything with water. Tomorrow, well, surprise, we’re doing something with water, we’re going to make you pay.'”

Two byelections are set for May 2 in Milton and Lambton—Kent—Middlesex to replace two former Progressive Conservative ministers. 

Fraser said eliminating free water testing would be a “big problem” for those using private wells in both ridings. 

“That’s why there’s this obfuscation about water testing or what they’re going to do,” he said, adding that such testing is a service he thinks the government should continue to provide free of charge. 

“I don’t think it’s exorbitant or costly or extravagant,” he said. 

In its section on the province’s lab network, the auditor general’s report also noted that three of the lab sites — Peterborough, Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury — two of which were proposed for closure, transferred 80 per cent to 91 per cent of tests to other sites. 

Pointing to a health centre in Sault Ste. Marie that recently announced 10,000 patients would lose access to their primary care providers by the end of May, Hornick said the possible lab closures could affect areas in the north that are “already in a health-care crisis.”

“Ninety-one per cent of samples going out, that looks really bad. But we are talking about just the nine per cent that are left and those that are coming back into those labs. What are those lives worth? What are those tests worth in terms of preventing illness, preventing a crisis?” said Hornick.

McGuire said closures of six labs would mean “crisis mode” if another pandemic were to hit.

“There’s lives at stake. You shut down all these labs … that’s not good odds across the province,” she said. 


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