TORONTO — Ontario's chief medical officer of health is set to be replaced in the coming weeks, Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Sunday in a decision praised by critics of both his performance and style during the COVID-19 crisis.
In a statement, Elliott said the government would introduce a motion in the legislature on Monday to replace Dr. David Williams with Dr. Kieren Moore, whose proposed appointment effective June 26 appeared to be generally welcomed.
"Dr. Moore’s years of experience working in public health will be crucial as we begin to gradually lift public health measures,” Elliott said. “I would like to thank Dr. Williams for his dedication to safeguarding the health and safety of Ontarians during his many years of service."
Williams became chief medical officer under the previous Liberal government in February 2016. Premier Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government reappointed him in November. He was slated to remain in the role until Sept. 1, but will now retire as of June 25.
While the province praised his leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, critics have taken aim at his rambling communication style and questioned his ability to stand up to Ford.
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, for example, had been calling for his ouster almost since the start of the pandemic, saying Williams failed to grasp how serious the situation would become.
Doris Grinspun, head of the association, said many of his decisions appeared to have been politically motivated.
"Either he didn't have the foresight to use the precautionary principle from the beginning and throughout the pandemic, or he didn't have the character to say to the premier, 'This is the way it needs to be'," Grinspun said on Sunday.
Other critics voiced concern about his handling of issues beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zoe Dodd, with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said Williams failed to come to grips with the opioid crisis. In some communities, she said, overdose deaths have outstripped pandemic fatalities under his watch.
"Dr. Williams has been negligent in his role," Dodd said on social media. "When COVID hit, we all knew that this man was going to be a puppet for (Ford)."
Moore has a long record in public health and emergency medicine. He has been medical officer of health for Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health since July 1, 2017.
He has received praise for mitigating the worst of the pandemic in his region — particularly in nursing homes — by taking decisive action such as mandating lockdowns and the use of protective gear.
Grinspun said she was delighted with Moore's appointment, calling the choice "brilliant."
In his own statement, Moore said being considered for the new role was a "great honour."
"I would remain steadfast in my commitment to fight COVID-19," Moore said. "I would provide all necessary advice to the government to ensure the health and safety of all Ontarians."
Williams has been faulted for failing to push for stiffer restrictions ahead of a huge surge in COVID-19 cases earlier this year. Ultimately, the province was forced back into lockdown and to close schools last month as hospitals became overrun.
New case counts, however, have fallen sharply in recent weeks as an initially slow vaccine rollout gained steam. The province reported 1,033 new COVID-19 infections on Sunday, a far cry from the more than 4,700 reported in April.
The province, currently due to enter the first stage of a three-step reopening plan in mid-June, also reported 18 more related deaths, while intensive care occupancy was at 614.
The announcement of Williams' pending departure comes as a reluctant Ford struggles with whether to send children back to school for the final weeks of the academic year. Williams, along with most of his counterparts, has said returning to classrooms can be done safely.
Other experts, however, have warned COVID-19 still poses a significant threat. Ford himself has expressed concerns over new variants and a projected jump in cases if in-person classes resume.
Elliott said Moore would be working alongside Williams for a few weeks, starting June 7, to ensure a smooth transition. The minister also expressed her gratitude for Williams' "experienced leadership" on the pandemic file.
In a statement on Sunday, Williams said it had been an honour to serve.
"I also want to thank the people of Ontario for the resilience they have displayed throughout this pandemic and for the support they have shown me," he said.
Among other duties, the chief medical officer of health provides advice on public health matters to the health sector and government. The appointment is normally for five years, with a second five-year term possible.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2021.
Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press