Ontario COVID-19 science table member resigns, alleges that modelling data 'projects a grim fall'
TORONTO -- A member of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has resigned from his position, alleging politics appear to be influencing public health recommendations and claiming the group is sitting on modelling data that “projects a grim fall.”
Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist at University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, announced his resignation from the table publicly on Monday through a letter posted to social media.
“It is with mixed emotions that I have decided to resign from Ontario’s science and modelling tables,” he said in a Tweet. “I wish every success to the colleagues who remain on these tables. Ontario needs a public health system that is arm’s length from politics.”
In the letter, dated Aug. 20, Fisman praises the science table’s ability to apply an equity lens to its recommendations, adding that he was proud of what they had achieved throughout the pandemic.
However, he also noted that he has been “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 matter with the public.”
“I have been in the uncomfortable position of repeatedly dissenting publicly from table guidance, though with the advantage of hindsight remain comfortable with my positions on the relevant issues,” he said.
“I do not wish to remain in this uncomfortable position, where I must choose between the placid relations with colleagues on the one hand, and the necessity of speaking truth during a public health crisis.”
The resignation letter appears to have been sent one day before Fisman said on social media that the Ontario science table has 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,” his tweet reads.
Fisman has frequently criticized the Ford government and its senior public health officials for its handling of school operations and testing and was an early proponent of the theory that COVID-19 is an airborne virus, something backed up by an ever-increasing amount of scientific data.
When asked about the alleged modelling, the communications director for the advisory table said that despite a rumour the table has presentable modelling “in hand,” that is not the case.
“We’re currently working on consensus modelling that we’ll release when it’s ready, but I don’t know exactly when that will be,” Robert Steiner said in a statement.
“We are working to understand what the fall may look like, but we only release modelling when we have reviewed a range of different individual models and have generated consensus among a number of different teams (and) modellers; otherwise it just amounts to the view of a single scientist based on a single method — too narrow a view to be robust. We’re only beginning that review and consensus-generating process now.”
Steiner added on Monday that a lot of mathematical and scientific work goes into generating modelling data and it isn’t a process they rush.
Speaking to CTV News on Monday, Dr. Peter Jüni, head of the COVID-19 Ontario Science Advisory Table, said that he has not spoken with Fisman but that he may have been referring to an independent presentation to the modelling consensus table a few weeks ago.
“The scientist is not even part of the modelling consensus table,” he said.
“This will undergo the same process as before and there was nothing that we actually withheld from the public there. The point really is, if we want to have reliable models, we need the process in place. You can’t just do that overnight. This needs a bit of time and my colleagues are working on it.
Jüni added that the advisory table is made up of volunteers who are also returning from a summer break after 18 months of work.
The last modelling data released to the public was on June 10 and indicated that the threat of a fourth wave caused by the Delta variant was unlikely in Ontario, although it was still possible.
In a best-case scenario, the table predicted that Ontario’s daily COVID-19 case count will remain under 500 during the summer.
In a medium scenario, that number could jump back up to nearly 1,000 cases per day by August.
On Sunday, health officials logged 722 new cases of COVID-19. The last time the daily infections were this high was on June 5, when 744 cases were reported.
On this same day last year, Ontario reported 108 new COVID-19 cases.
At the height of the pandemic, modelling data was released to the public every two weeks.
POLITICAL PARTIES CALL FOR CLARITY
Following Fisman’s resignation, politicians are calling for clarity regarding his claims that politics may be influencing the table’s final recommendations.
The Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said in a statement that Premier Doug Ford needs to address the allegations.
“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 for the people of Ontario,” Schreiner said.
“Kids are going back to school in days, with cases, ICU admissions and hospitalizations on the rise. Yet Doug Ford has been missing for weeks. I’m calling on Doug Ford to do his job and provide Ontarians with clarity on what is going on.”
New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath echoed that sentiment, adding that the premier has “failed in the past to listen to the science table, misrepresented their recommendations and he has repeatedly failed to act on their advice to protect Ontarians.”
Meanwhile, Liberal Leader Stephen Del Duca thanked Fisman for his commitment during the pandemic "in the face of an anti-science government."
Speaking to CP24 Monday afternoon, Dr. Andrew Boozary, executive director of social medicine at the University Health Network, said that it was concerning to see a breakdown between the political and scientific community.
“We really need to see science and government coming into the zone going into a fourth wave,” he said. “Of course if there’s any feelings of political interference or these ideas that need to be out there isn’t being put out there, and I think this is why we really need to get the structures down.”
“Given what everyone has been though, the people that we’ve lost, what businesses have had to endure, what the economy has been through, we need to see science and government actually closer than ever before.”
Boozary added that he has complete confidence in the science table and the work being done by those volunteers.
Other experts also took to social media to express their opinion on Fisman’s resignation and the allegations.