Dr. David Fisman resigns from Ontario’s COVID-19 advisory panel
Aug. 24, 2021
Ontario’s science table is promising new COVID-19 modelling next week after an outspoken member quit as he alleged “grim” projections on the pandemic’s trajectory are being withheld for political reasons.
The science table -- a volunteer body of doctors, epidemiologists and other experts advising Premier Doug Ford -- flatly denied the accusation, saying the modelling work is not complete and that to release it prematurely would not be “rigorous science.”
But the resignation by University of Toronto epidemiologist Dr. David Fisman heightened tensions for parents, students and teachers as the highly contagious Delta variant propels the number of new COVID-19 infections to daily levels six times higher than they were a year ago -- and just two weeks before in-class learning resumes
Fisman, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health who is known for pointed social media jabs at the government, tweeted his resignation letter on Monday morning. He called for “a public health system that is arm’s length from politics.”
“I do not wish to remain in this uncomfortable position, where I must choose between placid relations with colleagues on the one hand, and the necessity of speaking truth during a public health crisis on the other,” Fisman wrote in the letter dated Friday.
Over the weekend, he tweeted, “the Ontario science table has important modelling work that projects a grim fall ... I don’t understand why they’re not releasing that. It’s important for people to understand what lies ahead, and what the stakes are. If @COVIDSciOntario is arm’s length from the government, it should be released immediately.”
Dr. Peter Juni, the science table’s scientific director, told the Star that new modelling will likely be released “in a week or 10 days.”
Juni said he has been under no political pressure to withhold the modelling, which he said was delayed by early summer vacations among volunteers who “needed a break” after more than a year of constant effort.
“It makes me sad, obviously,” he said of Fisman’s controversial departure. “He didn’t give me a head’s up about his concerns.”
The science table has been active in convincing the government not to further loosen public health restrictions under Step 3 of its reopening plan because of slowing vaccination rates and rising infection levels, Juni added.
Fisman, whose previous tweets included a reference to pandemic response efforts by Ford “and his assorted flying monkeys,” declined further comment.
The epidemiologist is a vocal proponent of improved ventilation, particularly in schools, to limit airborne transmission of the virus. He opposed reopening schools last spring when the science table leadership said it could be done reasonably safely.
The science table said in a statement that preparing the modelling is a complicated process with many moving parts.
“We are now working to understand how COVID-19 may affect Ontario in the coming months, integrating the views from many models done by many teams and reviewing those results across teams until we generate a reasonable scientific consensus,” it said.
“Anything less is not rigorous science ... no single model -- no matter how rigorous it is -- reflects the consensus view that we believe should inform Ontario’s response.”
Fisman is not the only Dalla Lana epidemiologist to raise concerns about the lack of updated projections.
“Anyone who has any common sense or has seen the Ontario Science Table modelling knows the prospects are awful,” Diego Bassani tweeted Saturday. “They must have a really incredible justification for remaining silent as kids go back to school in two weeks. Waiting for magic or are schools not even opening?”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has repeatedly said in-person learning will resume after Labour Day, following months of shutdowns in the school system.
“We have a lot of precautions in place that are not taken in some U.S. places. We have a good start,” Juni said. “Will it be bumpy? By all means, but we have masks, cohorting, ventilation, filtration and physical distancing much better than a year ago.”
Measures will have to be “recalibrated” as conditions warrant, he added.
Fisman’s resignation letter was addressed to Dalla Lana dean Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, who became a public figure during the pandemic for bi-weekly televised briefings that used modelling to predict the trajectory of COVID-19 infections.
Brown has not joined Ontario’s chief medical officer at regular briefings to outline the latest projections since mid-June, despite a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases.
At his most recent news conference last Tuesday, chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore warned “a difficult fall and winter” are ahead but provided no projections.
Even with about 75 per cent of eligible Ontarians over age 12 fully vaccinated, new cases of COVID-19 are 600 per cent higher than last year at this time, primarily in the unvaccinated.
That is raising concerns about the potential for it to spread when in-person classes resume, given that vaccines are not approved for children born after 2009. Ontario reported 639 new infections on Monday, compared with 115 exactly one year ago, when no vaccines were available outside clinical trials.
Ford’s office declined to comment on Fisman’s departure, saying it is a matter for the science table to handle. That did not satisfy opposition parties.
“The science table has been a crucial partner in navigating the COVID-19 public health crisis, so when a member seemingly resigns in protest, it is a cause for concern and it needs to be clarified,” said Green Leader Mike Schreiner.
Ontario’s modelling on the pandemic has typically predicted a range of case levels and impacts on the hospital system, from the best case to the worst, depending on the level of public health measures employed, with the actual path often falling in the middle.
Brown declined Fisman’s resignation earlier this year following a brief controversy over Fisman’s paid work for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, to which he provided advice on COVID-19 protections.
In his latest letter, Fisman suggests advice to the Progressive Conservative government is being diluted.
“In a system such as ours, it was always going to be a challenge to balance the best scientific guidance with what’s politically possible,” he wrote.
“I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with the degree to which political considerations appear to be driving outputs from the table, or at least the degree to which these outputs are shared in a transparent manner with the public,” he added.
“I have been in the uncomfortable position of repeatedly dissenting publicly from our table guidance, though with the advantage of hindsight I remain comfortable with my positions on the relevant issues.”