Ontario top doc takes issue with stricter pandemic school measures in Niagara


Published January 20, 2022 at 3:49 pm

Ontario’s top doctor has taken issue with a local public health leader’s decision to introduce stronger COVID-19 measures in schools around virus-related dismissals, masks and air filtration.

Dr. Kieran Moore says he was concerned that Dr. Mustafa Hirji’s plans for the Niagara Region could give rise to greater rates of student absenteeism.

Moore says he wrote to the region’s medical officer of health this month to outline his concerns about its approach to schools, because he wants the province to take a consistent approach.

He says the province is in touch with the health unit about its plans.

Meanwhile, Hirji says his health unit plans to go ahead with its local measures to allow for added protection for students and staff.

The Niagara Regional Health Unit declined to share copies of Hirji’s original memos outlining the specific pandemic measures for schools, saying details were still being finalized as of Thursday.

But a copy of Moore’s Jan. 15 letter to Hirji outlined several of the region’s plans, including a direction to monitor carbon dioxide levels in all classrooms and install HEPA filters that read over a certain level.

Moore’s letter said the province isn’t aware of a correlation between CO2 levels and virus transmission and raised concern about the financial costs of that requirement. 

He also questioned a plan to dismiss class cohorts for seven days in some cases, which is longer than the five-day isolation recommended by the province for people infected with COVID-19.

Moore wrote that this could have negative impacts on the well-being of children and their families.

He also expressed concern over plans to ask for medical exemptions to the mask requirement in schools.

And he took issue with Hirji moving forward with the measures without consulting the labour or education ministries.

The criticism from Moore comes as schools reopen across Ontario with little information on COVID-19 cases due to changes in testing policy that has made PCR tests less accessible.

The province isn’t sharing data on COVID-19 cases in schools but says it will start reporting absence rates next week — though it won’t say whether absences were virus-related.

At a news conference on Thursday, Moore noted that he found it unusual for public health physicians to get involved in policies that affect workplaces, and said he wanted to get clarity from Hirji on the move.

But throughout the pandemic, medical officers of health across Ontario have often introduced stricter COVID-19 rules affecting workplaces, businesses and schools than those in place provincewide.

During a wave of infections last spring, medical officers in Toronto and Peel decided to close schools to in-person learning before the province announced a similar move.

In recent months, Ontario officials including Premier Doug Ford and Moore have said publicly that local public health units can and should take their own measures to deal with the pandemic if the regional situation calls for it. 

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called Moore’s admonishment of Hirji’s school measures “shameful.” 

She said Hirji should be thanked for taking more protective measures than the province is on schools.

Three NDP legislators representing the region also issued a joint statement in support of Hirji. Jennie Stevens, Jeff Burch, and Wayne Gates along with candidate Dave Augustyn said Moore’s letter “has Ford’s fingerprints all over it” and said Niagara is doing the right thing to try and keep schools open for longer.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 20, 2022.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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