June 21, 2024

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Public health workers speak out against potential lab closures

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Kingston’s medical officer of health vocally opposed to proposed lab closure

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Public Health Ontario workers are decrying the potential closure of six out of the agency’s 11 public health labs across the province, including one in Kingston.

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The potential closure of the labs was recommended by Ontario’s auditor general in December 2023 as part of Public Health Ontario’s “modernization plan,” a media advisory from the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) stated Wednesday.

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“Combined, these labs collect and process thousands of water samples and time-sensitive medical tests each day,” the release said. “They are integral to our public health infrastructure in Ontario.

“The closure of these six community-based (Public Health Ontario) labs will increase health inequities and endanger rural families and communities. It will also undermine our ability to detect and prevent the spread of disease and compromise our response to future health crises.”

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The potential closures would affect 82 staff at laboratory sites in Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie, Orillia, Hamilton, Kingston and Peterborough.

Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Board of Health passed a motion at the end of February opposing the potential closure of the lab in Kingston, and the local public health agency’s medical officer of health was vocal at that meeting about the effect a closure would have on the region.

Dr. Piotr Oglaza told members of the board during a regular meeting on Feb. 28 that the lab, which he said has functioned in the city for nearly a century, has longstanding relationships with many organizations in the area and is a hub for Kingston-based research.

“Its closure would impact the local access to timely diagnostic services, and also the timeliness of decisions both in health care and in public health specifically,” Oglaza said during that meeting.

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“Its closure will severely undermine our ability to effectively address any future public health emergencies and outbreaks in a timely fashion. The closure of this will not only affect the effectiveness of the wider public health and health-care system, but also will be the loss of critical expertise and jobs in the area in all the number of partnerships, and the role of this laboratory site for graduate students, for research projects, for any of the innovation and work that this region is known for.”

At that meeting, board members passed a motion to send a letter to Public Health Ontario’s president and chief executive officer, Dr. Michael Sherar; Ontario’s deputy premier and minister of health, Sylvia Jones; and Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health and assistant deputy minister of public health, opposing the closure.

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Lab workers with Ontario Public Health delivered a petition with more than 9,000 signatures to Queen’s Park on Wednesday that expressed concerns about the proposed lab closures.

Agency staff are also worried about the proposal to eliminate Public Health Ontario’s private well water testing program, but a representative from the office of Ontario Health Minister Sylvia Jones said that no decision has been made to cancel the program.

“The Ministry of Health funds Public Health Ontario (PHO) to provide testing services for individuals who rely on private drinking water systems to serve a single household,” Hannah Jensen, deputy director of communications for the minister, told the Whig-Standard. “The ministry has not made any decisions about changes to the provincial well water testing program, including which laboratories conduct testing of water samples.”

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Jensen pointed to comments made by Jones during question period on Tuesday and “re-affirmed” on Wednesday.

“I want to be very clear: There have been no changes,” Jones said. “People who want to get their well water tested — and there are thousands across rural Ontario, including in my own riding — take those tests to their public health unit. They get tested. They get those results. That continues.”

Jensen also pointed out that no decision has been made to shutter any public health labs.

“Any reference to ‘closures’ is in reference to the auditor general’s report, not a government decision,” she said.

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— with files from Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

Dr. Piotr Oglaza
Dr. Piotr Oglaza is medical officer of health for Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health. Photo by Meghan Balogh /The Whig-Standard

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