Ontario’s COVID-19 science table to disband as schools reopen

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Ontario’s science table advising the provincial government on the COVID-19 pandemic will be disbanded early next month, the group said, a day after issuing a back-to-school note on how to deal with a virus set to affect its fourth school year.

“The COVID-19 pandemic continues, and it contributes to Ontario’s growing number of health system crises,” the members of the mostly volunteer group of medical and scientific experts said in a statement posted online on Friday.

Hospitals and other health-care facilities in the province are facing staff shortages, especially nurses, that have in some cases forced the temporary closure of emergency rooms amid record-high waiting times and patient volumes.

The pandemic “will remain a daunting challenge for the foreseeable future and our health-care system is under incredible strain right now,” Fahad Razak, an internist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto who took over as head of the table earlier this year, said in his own statement on the news.

Public Health Ontario told panel members on Aug. 18 that the table and its working groups would be dissolved on Sept. 6, the group said.

Most of Ontario’s two million elementary and secondary school students return to classes after a two-month summer break the next day, and on Thursday, the table had said it was essential that schools remain open.

To help with that goal, it said all schools should have adequate indoor air quality, environmental cleaning and disinfection, hand hygiene, and students and staff who stay home when sick.

“Efforts should be made to ensure equitable distribution of these permanent measures between schools and communities in order to support safe in-person learning for all children,” the group said.

The temporary return of physical distancing, mask mandates and classroom cohorts should only be considered to deal with a major outbreak affecting attendance or provincewide capacity constraints in health care, it said.

Such decisions involve local public health units and the ministries of health and education as well, the brief on school safety said, and would need to run in concert with community-wide measures.

Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, re-elected with an enlarged majority this summer, has sought to downplay the continued risks that COVID-19 presents and is pushing through legislation to make it easier for hospitals to move elderly patients into long-term care.

Ontario scrapped mask mandates for schools, restaurants, gyms and stores in March, and got rid of most other COVID-19 public health restrictions by the end of April.

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said earlier this month that an autumn wave of COVID-19 may be milder than he would have predicted a few months ago since so many people have been infected with the Omicron variant, a new variant of concern has not yet emerged, and immunization rates are high.

Ford told reporters at a transit-related appearance in Niagara on Friday that the science table wasn’t being dissolved, just “absorbed” by government agency Public Health Ontario.

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer