COVID-19 no longer novel coronavirus in Ontario

By Katherine DeClerq June 20, 2024
Photo of a negative COVID-19 rapid test.

Under new provincial regulations medical officers of health in Ontario are no longer required to report certain types of  COVID-19 data to the Ministry of Health or Public Health Ontario. (Photo: )

The Ontario government is downgrading COVID-19 from a novel coronavirus to a “disease of public health significance,” limiting the kind of data that needs to be reported to, and by, medical officers of health.

The change is being proposed through a regulation, which was publicly open for comment for a week earlier this month.

Under the new designation, medical officers of health will not need to pass on COVID-19 data unrelated to deaths and outbreaks to the Ministry of Health or Public Health Ontario.

Individuals who perform point of care testing will also no longer need to report every positive result to the medical officer of health.

The ministry said the change brings data collection for COVID-19 into alignment with the other 24 diseases public health units track. Data will still be funneled to Public Health Ontario (PHO) directly from labs, which according to PHO have been enhanced to include public health unit and age breakdowns “for a larger proportion of the tests.”

“When COVID-19 first emerged, the need for detailed information was necessary, as the disease was novel, and little was known about the potential impact to public health,” Health Minister Sylvia Jones’ spokesperson Hannah Jensen told Queen’s Park Today.

“COVID-19 will continue to be monitored using existing administrative data streams (e.g., percent positivity, hospital reported daily bed census, ICU data, COVID-19 outbreak data),” Jensen said in a statement.

According to a disclaimer on the PHO website, this means public reporting of case counts and rates “will pause,” although other “longer term integrative data solutions for COVID-19” will be explored.

Public health experts say the regulation will reduce administrative burdens on employees. Toronto Public Health, for example, said it will create “operational efficiencies” that will allow staff to focus its resources on outbreak management.

However, Dr. Andrew Pinto, associate professor at the University of Toronto and director of Upstream Lab — a not-for-profit research lab focused on social determinants of health — told Queen’s Park Today he has concerns about the changes occurring in conjunction with the cutting of funding for the COVID-19 wastewater surveillance program.

“It’s that balance of, while we’re reducing data in one area, do we have it in another source? And I would say that wastewater surveillance was both fairly cheap for the amount of information we got and also provided us a system that could be quickly scaled up in a new pandemic,” he said.

Pinto agreed that COVID-19 is no longer “novel” but that it will never be eradicated.

“My bigger worry is more the future,” he said, noting there are strains of other illnesses gaining speed that may require more intensive data collection.

NDP Health critic France Gélinas has similar concerns, noting that variants of COVID-19 are still making people “really sick.”

“They are telling us it’s not important anymore,” Gélinas said. “To bury your head in the sand, by not collecting information that should be collected, is against the basic nature of public health.”