TORONTO -- The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and a chorus of doctors are sounding an alarm over a statement issued by Premier Doug Ford’s office casting doubt on the integrity of a an epidemiologist who has been critical of the Ford government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is beyond concerning that this government is yet again attacking an expert for bringing critical attention to issues that are so very important to everyone in this province,” ETFO President Sam Hammond told CP24 in an interview Wednesday.

Hammond’s comment followed a statement issued by Premier Doug Ford’s office Tuesday evening which sounded concern over a “potential conflict” on the part of Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at UofT’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

The concern in the premier’s office was triggered by an article in the Toronto Sun that same night suggesting that paid work Fisman had done for ETFO might constitute a conflict with his role as a member of Ontario’s science table, particularly when it comes to the table’s advice to the government on school closures.

The statement issued by Ford’s office hours after the article was published called the piece “deeply concerning” and said “we learned about this matter through the media. Neither the Premier nor his cabinet were aware of this potential conflict.”

Ford’s office said it expects any members of the volunteer-composed COVID-19 Science Advisory Table to disclose “any actual or potential conflicts of interest.”

Fisman told the paper that members of the table are required to disclose potential conflicts every six months and that his paid work for ETFO had fallen outside of that period. He said the newest published disclosures would include the work.

He added that he offered to not be paid at all, and the rate for the consulting they eventually agreed on was lower than what he normally charged.

He also questioned what the concern was about, because all that ETFO asked him to do was to give them the best possible advice on the latest research.

“My service to ETFO included reviewing evidence on kids and COVID-19, and the importance of ventilation and aerosol transmission,” Fisman wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night.

But Ford said through his office that accepting ETFO money generated the appearance of “bias.”

“Ontarians have put their trust in us to make difficult decisions based on sound, impartial public health advice. Our expectation is that anyone involved in providing advice to the government in this capacity would do so absent of agenda or bias, and therefore this paid relationship raises legitimate concerns,” Ford’s office said.

In addition to practicing doctors and academics, the table also includes bureaucrats whose salaries are paid by the government.

Hammond said Fisman’s work for ETFO was always a matter of public record.

“In Summer 2020, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) retained medical and scientific experts as part of a legal proceeding; Dr. David Fisman was one of those experts. He was compensated for his involvement, which was public. The provincial government was certainly aware of the experts with whom we were working,” Hammond said in a statement.

“Since then, ETFO has consulted with Dr. Fisman on the health and safety impacts of COVID-19 as it relates to schools. Dr. Fisman has not been compensated for this guidance and the consultation has been done transparently; he’s been quoted in ETFO statements and in letters to Premier Ford.”

Hammond said Ford should have known about Fisman’s work with ETFO and questioned why he is choosing to express concern now.

“The government has had complete access to all of that as well as the documents that were filed at the Labor Board so we find it extremely shocking that the premier is suggesting that the government knew nothing about Dr. Fisman's professional expert opinions or his involvement in any of this,” Hammond told CP24.

Fisman also said Tuesday that he had asked one of the chairs of the Science Table whether he should step down in light of the Sun story, and was told he should not.

Colleagues sound support

A chorus of doctors took to social media to express support for Fisman Tuesday night and by early Wednesday morning, the hash tag, #ThankyouDavidFisman was trending on Twitter.

A number of them suggested he was facing retribution from the government for speaking out against their handling of the pandemic.

“#ThankYouDavidFisman for educating us on infectious disease epidemiology with facts & memes, despite facing constant threats & harassment,” family physician Dr. Jennifer Kwan wrote. “#NoThanks to those who attack/silence physicians & scientists for speaking the truth & trying to save lives in a pandemic.”

Infectious disease doctor Ilan Schwartz also chimed in.

“Dr. @DFisman is an exemplary physician & epidemiologist, & he's a mensch. His impassioned science communication & tireless advocacy is informed only by data & driven by concern for others. His integrity is unimpeachable. He is a provincial & national treasure.”

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Toronto Board of Health Chair Joe Cressy also spoke out in support of Fisman, thanking him for his guidance.

“As we fight the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific guidance and analysis has been an essential weapon. I am grateful for the expertise and advice of @DFisman and for the conversations he has had with me,” Freeland wrote.

On Wednesday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath issued a statement accusing Ford of trying to undermine public health experts who question his government’s pandemic response.

“There is a pattern of public health experts, doctors and scientists who are critical of the Ford government being undermined, targeted or harassed for expressing their professional opinion,” Horwath said in the statement.

The statement also questioned why some of the government’s experts are being called out for conflicts  while others are not.

“Dr. David Fisman is one of many unpaid government consultants who also has paid work. Yet Doug Ford singled Fisman out with a stinging statement on Tuesday in an effort to undermine him. Meanwhile, Ford’s got highly-paid owners of for-profit long-term care homes sitting at his advisory tables, and hasn’t put out statements attacking their conflicts of interest,” the statement read.

In a flurry of tweets Wednesday, Fisman himself pushed back, calling the Ford government’s pandemic response “a mess.”

“But understand: Ontario's pandemic response has been a mess. As other Canadian provinces have struggled they've learned and adapted,” Fisman said. “Doug Ford has had abundant access to good guidance; he's ignored much of it. We saw this manifest in the "crossing of streams" as Ontario overtook Quebec...we now have the largest COVID-19 epidemic in Canada.”

The Ford government has faced criticism from medical professionals over its handling of the pandemic on a number of fronts, including schools and long-term care homes and preventing workplace outbreaks.

After initially insisting that schools would not take an extended winter break, the government eventually heeded calls from health experts to hold kids back from in-person learning as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed. 

On Tuesday a group called Doctors for Justice in LTC released a letter signed by hundreds of physicians calling the situation in the province’s long-term care homes a “humanitarian crisis.”