AS THE Public Health Ontario website states “(PHO) keeps Ontarians safe and healthy. With our partners in government, public health and health care, we prevent illness and improve health.” PHO has 11 labs across this province and if Premier Doug Ford has his way there may be less or even worse none left in Ontario.
Public health labs have been in Ontario for more than 100 years and were taken out of the Ministry of Health in 2008 after the SARS outbreak and incorporated in the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion Act that was born in 2007. This was done to be an arm’s-length agency to react faster and more efficiently to health care issues in Ontario.
Go back to 2000 when the Walkerton E.coli outbreak occurred. Numerous people died as a result, in part because in 1996 then-PC premier Mike Harris closed the ministry of environment labs and privatized water testing. This may occur again as water testing and other PHO services may be for-profit and citizens of Ontario may have to choose between testing their water and putting food on the table.
Currently our 11 labs offer 282 tests, do approximately 5.5 million tests per year and act on 10,000 specimens daily. We work closely with our partners, namely hospitals, private labs, clinics and — most importantly — with the 35 public health units (plus sub-offices) in Ontario. We work hand-in-hand with these public health units, assisting with outbreak testing, STD and AIDS testing, immunization testing, food, malaria, legionella testing, and — most importantly — water testing.
We also test the drinking water and beach water for all the provincial parks in Ontario. The Thunder Bay Lab is responsible for everything from the Manitoba border to White River and north. Thunder Bay’s laboratory also supports the First Nations communities in the north that test samples that Sioux Lookout’s Meno Ya Win hospital forwards our lab for routine and reference testing.
We are not a nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday operation. Our normal operating hours are Monday to Saturday at various hours, depending on workload and we are available for Sunday, statutory holidays, on call, and stat testing if called upon for outbreak, HIV, water and other testing.
We are dedicated office support, customer service centre, medical technicians/ technologists, scientists and others. Just for the record, you won’t see these frontline workers on the sunshine list as well as our local managers.
We do the more specialized and lengthy testing that hospitals or private labs don’t want to do because it is too costly for their budgets and are not profitable for the private sector. These tests include fungus, zika, tick testing and the list goes on and on.
The people of Ontario deserve to be protected under for a not-for-profit system. Hopefully Premier Ford will rethink his plan to dismantle or weaken the Public Health Ontario laboratories and keep it in the taxpayer’s hands. He shouldn’t roll the dice and let his corporate friends profit in a pay-for-fee service set up in the private sector. Under this scenario, I foresee another Walkerton brewing and Ontarians will pay the price again.
Clayton B. McKibbon
Public Health Ontario Thunder Bay supervisor of specimen handling
OPSEU VP, Local 716