Corp Comm Connects

Ontario on pace to begin next stage of reopening ‘a few days’ early, says retiring chief medical officer
June 23, 2021
Rob Ferguson

Ontario is on pace to reopen “a few days” ahead of the July 2 target for haircuts and other amenities in the next stage of its COVID-19 recovery plan, says retiring chief medical officer Dr. David Williams.

“I’m thinking we could. Our data’s looking good,” the 70-year-old Williams told the Star in an interview as he reflected on a long career in public health, his most frightening moment of the pandemic, the criticisms he faced, and the setback that pushed the province into a third wave shutdown and hospital capacity to the brink.

Acknowledging pressure from the public and politicians, Williams said Tuesday that key pandemic indicators -- including daily new infections, hospital intensive care unit occupancy and vaccination levels -- are falling into line, with enough time for people getting jabs to develop immunity.

“I’m feeling optimistic that we could go a few days early, before July 2,” added Williams, whose last day in the job making recommendations to Premier Doug Ford’s government is Friday.

His successor is Dr. Kieran Moore, who most recently served as medical officer of health for the Kingston area. The two men have been working together for most of June.

But while Williams is optimistic, Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said Tuesday that the government is not ready to make an announcement on reopening just yet.

“We’re doing this in a very measured way, under the advice and guidance of our health table and chief medical officer,” Jones told a news conference. “I couldn’t be happier if we could open sooner, but I also want to do it safely.”

The pandemic that has taken the lives of 9,082 Ontarians -- almost half of them in nursing homes -- and infected at least 542,764 has also thrust Williams into the public eye in a way he never expected.

He hosted regularly televised news conferences on COVID-19 developments and public health restrictions that were viewed as too lenient by some and too harsh by others. He also faced tough questions after some of his responses were criticized as too slow or insufficient by the auditor general and a commission into long-term care.

Williams says it was the early days of his career after graduating from the University of Toronto medical school in 1976 -- working at a remote hospital in Sioux Lookout before spending almost 10 years at the United Mission Hospital in Tansen, Nepal -- that forged an interest in the importance of public health.

“People would walk four to five days to get there and the lineups started at 3 a.m.,” the married father of four recalled of his time in Nepal.

He twice headed the Thunder Bay-area health unit and served as Ontario’s associate chief medical officer before being appointed to the $444,344-a-year top post in February 2016.

Three years later, what was to become the pandemic of the century arrived in Ontario with two passengers on a plane from China -- and grew from there.

On the eve of the March school break in 2020, Williams advised Ontarians not to leave the country. But it was too late -- thousands had already left on trips south.

“People came back and infected people back here,” he said. “While we’d had control, the control ended.”

The initial lockdown followed, along with the first COVID-19 explosion in nursing homes that later prompted Premier Doug Ford to establish a commission into how the virus spread so quickly in the close confines of long-term care.

Citing a provincial directive on the use of masks in nursing homes that did not take effect until April 8, 2020 -- more than a week after a similar Toronto Public Health order -- the commission found “critical decisions came too late” to save more lives.

Williams has maintained he made decisions on the best evidence at the time, and said Tuesday he listened to constructive criticism to consider alternate points of view, but viewed the personal attacks in the media and on Twitter as “unprofessional.”

“I just chose to disregard that type of commentary,” he said.

As for reopening from the second wave in February and March -- which many critics said at the time was happening too soon and unfolding too quickly as the more contagious Alpha variant overtook the province -- Williams blamed a shortage of vaccines prompted by Pfizer’s decision to retool a plant in Belgium for having to pull back.

Despite a late March promise that lockdown areas like Toronto and Peel could reopen barber shops and hair salons on April 12, Ford was forced to impose severe restrictions April 16.

“That was disappointing,” Williams said. “We had counted on what (vaccines) we were told we were going to get. How do you plan for that?”

Hence the caution of the three-step reopening plan, based in part of vaccination levels, that is expected to see Ontario enter the final stage as early as the third week of July with a resumption of indoor dining, for example.

By that time, Williams expects to be at his Muskoka cottage, working on a few projects neglected over the last few years, including a stairway to the lake.

“This Saturday will be my first day not on call in 40 years.”