An independent group of Ontario health experts tasked with providing advice and analysis throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is being dissolved Sept. 6, according to its members, though the government says its work will continue under a revised mandate.
The COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, consisting of more than 40 volunteer scientific experts and health care leaders, was formed in July, 2020, to provide advice to the Ontario government and the broader public on responding to the pandemic.
In a Friday morning letter, members said they were informed by Public Health Ontario (PHO) last week that the organization and its working groups would be dissolved. The advisory group was transitioned to the oversight of the government agency in April from the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. At the time of the transfer, PHO officials said the change would “create a permanent home for the table” and bolster its provincial resources, while continuing to operate independently.
With the COVID-19 virus still circulating in the community and the possibility of a fall wave, table scientific director Fahad Razak said he hopes any future iteration of an advisory board will continue to offer independence for its members to choose what topics to study and how to communicate findings to the public.
Last week, Dr. Razak and other medical experts penned an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail calling on governments to take further action to contain COVID-19 in an effort to reduce the growing burden on health care systems across the country.
“The COVID-19 pandemic will remain a daunting challenge for the foreseeable future and our health care system is under extraordinary strain right now. I hope we can take all the steps necessary to reduce the burden of the pandemic to keep our system functioning in the difficult months ahead,” Dr. Razak said on Friday.
“I hope that the principles that the table was based on, true scientific independence and transparency, a focus on equity and a dedication to advocate for communities and individuals that have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic guides any future advisory group.”
Contrary to the letter, PHO said in a statement on Friday that a new mandate is being established for the science table through terms of reference reflecting a “long-term, sustainable approach” that ensures the continuation of independent experts and public health advice on COVID-19 and future public-health emergencies. The new terms of reference are expected to come into effect in early September.
The current terms of the table don’t offer any limitations on the number of members or areas of focus that the group can study. It outlines the table’s objectives to identify key gaps in evidence and share information with expert panels when considering different policies.
Throughout the several waves of the pandemic, the table has provided recommendations to the government on potential public-health measures to curb the spread as well as modelling projections. Just Thursday, the team issued a report on COVID-19 infection prevention and control considerations ahead of the upcoming school year. The table has also faced criticism during the pandemic for erroneous projections.
Waste water surveillance data and other key indicators, such as hospitalization and ICU numbers, have also been compiled and updated regularly on its website. It’s not clear what any mandate change would mean to the public data and science briefs shared by the table, but PHO said it will have more information to share next week. Waste water monitoring is still being conducted by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks and analyzed by several postsecondary institutions across the province.
Asked about the situation at an unrelated event in Niagara Falls, Premier Doug Ford disputed the dissolution claims and referenced the April transition to PHO.
“We’re not dissolving it, we’re actually transferring it over to Public Health [Ontario]. They had an incredible relationship throughout this pandemic and they’re going to have a full-time home rather than be put out there in limbo,” he said. “We’re going to continue working with them and taking their advice and guidance.”
The science table members said they will aim to complete studies in the works within the coming weeks.
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