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City to end dedicated COVID-19 response, cuts pandemic hires

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, says the public health agency will be cutting down its COVID programming in the new year. (Sarah Kester/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, says the public health agency will be cutting down its COVID programming in the new year. (Sarah Kester/CBC - image credit)

Ottawa Public Health is ending its dedicated COVID-19 response funded by the province as that funding is set to expire.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, told the board of health the public health agency will return to pre-pandemic levels of full-time employees by 2024.

According to Etches, Ottawa Public Health (OPH) grew from 500 employees in March 2020 to 4,400 at the peak of its pandemic response. A majority of those workers were focused on immunization, she said.

"We have been decreasing this number since the peak of Omicron arriving in our community in January 2022," she said during a board of health meeting Monday night.

"But now we'll be back down to about 500 people in the spring of 2024."

In its $87.5 million budget for 2024, which the board of health voted in favour of Monday, OPH earmarked $6.82 million in "one time" COVID-19 funding.

Starting in 2024, the provincial government will no longer pay for municipal costs related to COVID-19 programming.

But Etches says work related to COVID-19 and respiratory illness is not coming to an end.

"Addressing communicable diseases remains a core function of public health," she said. "It means we don't have the same resources, as we did earlier in the pandemic and emergency mode."

Ottawa continues to see high rates of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 in older adults.

OPH is encouraging people to get vaccinated, but says an expanded workforce for mass-immunizations are no longer needed.

"We've seen the demand for COVID-19 vaccination has come down and so ... we're able to meet that demand in the community now," said Etches.

Ottawa Public Health clinics will also continue offering COVID-19 vaccines to all residents.