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File photo shows Dr. Dirk Huyer, Chief Coroner for Ontario, speaking at the lectern as the government gives an update on the COVID-19 situation in the province at Queen's Park, in Toronto, on June 24, 2020.Richard Lautens/The Canadian Press

As Ontario’s Chief Coroner, Dirk Huyer is an expert on the dead, having overseen thousands of investigations into unexpected and unnatural deaths. So he understands why his recent appearance at a news conference about the government’s back-to-school plan, where he was tapped to lead the province’s efforts to manage COVID-19 outbreaks, was jarring for some and prompted a flood of online comments expressing confusion and concern.

“I understand that. And I could see. But I’m not coming in as the Chief Coroner,” Dr. Huyer said in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail. “It’s two separate roles.”

Chief Coroner is his day job, a position the 59-year-old medical doctor has held since 2014, partly stemming from a childhood interest in medical investigative work – he was a big fan of the TV series Quincy, M.E.

The other role is to help co-ordinate the provincial response to coronavirus outbreaks – on farms, in long-term care homes and, yes, even schools and daycare centres.

With the resumption of classes, Dr. Huyer will play a crucial role in helping to bring various branches of the government and education sector together to handle outbreaks, which health officials have said are inevitable as the economy reopens.

His appointment comes as Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, faces criticism from some in the medical community over his handling of the pandemic in long-term care homes and an outcry over his recommendation to reopen schools without drastically reducing class sizes to permit physical distancing.

Dr. Huyer said he has the “deepest respect” for Dr. Williams and in no way sees himself as a replacement for the province’s top doctor. He said he was chosen for his ability to collaborate and co-ordinate with various government ministries and officials and for his deep understanding of medical investigations. Although trained as a physician – with a specialization in child abuse cases – Dr. Huyer does not have a background in public health.

He said it is not his place to comment on the merits of the province’s back-to-school plan.

“It’s not a plan that I developed,” said Dr. Huyer, whose daughter-in-law is a teacher in another province.

“My role is to help to co-ordinate where the province may need to add additional resources or supports, based upon outbreaks that may occur. … It’s not specifically to have a structured review process of the plan.”

Dr. Huyer – whom government officials describe as affable, hard-working and competent – was chosen this spring to help oversee a new provincial testing strategy for asymptomatic people in high-risk groups. He helped co-ordinate a response to outbreaks among hundreds of migrant farm workers in the Windsor-Essex County region, which the government credits with getting the situation under control.

“One of the key things we learned is [that] when we don’t suspect … COVID is present, we don’t find COVID," Dr. Huyer said. "When we suspect there’s COVID present, we find more than we might have anticipated.”

Andrew Morris, an infectious disease expert at the Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto, said Dr. Huyer’s appointment signals the government’s desire for more consistency in its outbreak response, especially as it relates to schools. With 34 public-health units and 72 school boards across the province, a uniform approach is key to shoring up public confidence in the system, he said.

“Something that would be really difficult for the province to have happen is that you have two seemingly similar outbreaks handled very differently," Dr. Morris said. “I would imagine that amongst the things that he’s hoping to do is have these be co-ordinated in a better manner.”

Premier Doug Ford has praised Dr. Huyer, publicly expressing confidence in his abilities. The Coroner’s Office was criticized by the provincial Auditor-General in a 2019 report for a lack of supervision and oversight, which may have contributed to some “low-quality death investigations.” Dr. Huyer said he has brought in extra help from deputy and regional coroners to ensure “investigations are thorough and carefully being done.”

Dr. Huyer’s medical career began in 1989 at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where he worked in the suspected child abuse and neglect program, in some cases dealing with infants.

Throughout his career he has been involved in more than 5,000 death investigations.

“In all of the work that I do, there’s always sadness and tragedy," he said.

“I try to always refocus that energy in trying to learn … to help things get better for that child, that family, that community – and then more broadly, the system.”

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