Science table member says province 'twisted' his work to justify March Break move

Science table member says province ‘twisted’ his work to justify March Break move

A prominent member of Ontario's COVID-19 tables says the chief medical officer is misinterpreting his work to justify "bad policy choices."

Epidemiologist Dr. David Fisman said his work, which was cited by Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, is "not even close" to supporting the government's postponing of March Break until April, and that if one of his students showed the same level of understanding as the province's top doctor, he'd be concerned.

Last week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce shared a clip where Williams elaborated on the government's decision to move the break.

"I think if you look at the data that Dr. (Adalsteinn) Brown has showed you, it's that we're going to see the upswing, if it's going to occur, if our measures haven't been effective, in the early part of March," Williams said. "By April, it's already taken effect. So we really didn't want to have that — because we saw a large increase in infection rates among the youth when they were out of school — we didn't want that coming, consistent at the Public Health Measures Table, at the same time as, when we saw the modelling, when the curve in the hockey stick is really starting to pick up."

Fisman said the data Williams cited was his modelling, which shows how cases of COVID-19 variants in Toronto could change under different reproduction numbers (R).

While Williams used the data to demonstrate a need to push back the break based on a potential spike in variant cases, it actually showed that that spike could come from reopening schools and businesses, Fisman said.

"So to assert that increased R from opening schools would magically be further increased if we close schools for March break? It’s so bizarre and illogical it makes my eyes hurt," he tweeted.

Businesses should not reopen shortly after schools, as is currently the plan, he said. To avoid outbreaks in schools, he said class sizes should be reduced, along with more air purifiers and surveillance testing.

"[We] should not be prolonging in-person schooling through March at a time we expect to see a surge driven in part by aforementioned school opening," he tweeted.

Fisman said it's "troubling" that his modelling was "twisted and misinterpreted to justify bad policy choices."

"I have no idea whether this is purposeful twisting or just garden variety misunderstanding," Fisman told QP Briefing via email.

"But yes, I teach this stuff, and if I had a student interpret a model as Dr. Williams did I'd be concerned about their level of comprehension of the course materials."

Williams was not part of the government's COVID-19 update on Tuesday, but Associate Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe said Fisman's comments were "unfortunate."

"I think that there's certainly a lot of pressure to open the schools. We have increased the protective measures in the schools. And we're monitoring extremely carefully as we do it," she said, adding that Fisman is doing "excellent work" advising the province.

"It's unfortunate that he feels that way, but we are working very closely with the science table. And I think if he has concerns he should take them up with the chair of the science table, which is Dr. Brown," she said.

During the modelling presentation, Brown seemed to agree with a reporter who said it looked that the province was headed toward "disaster."

Yaffe connected Fisman's comments to violent hostility against public health officials, including Niagara Region's top doctor, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, who received death threats on social media including a call to "put his head on a stick."

"We are seeing, as you've seen over the weekend, the hostility against Dr. Hirji in Niagara Health Unit. Certainly, we've been hearing about hostility against some other CMOHs in Canada and public health officials in the States. I mean, I think it is concerning, and we are all doing our best to protect the health of the public, and so I think people need to appreciate these are not simple decisions. There are many factors that go into them. And having hostile comments is not helpful," she said.

Fisman, who has called for Williams' resignation, said he hasn't seen this type of misunderstanding happen with the group's previous modelling.

"It appears to me that the usual approach is to have Steini (Adalsteinn Brown) walk people through what current modelling shows, and then outsource attacks on the modelling to the Toronto Sun," he said.

Fisman, who has been fiercely critical of the Ontario government's pandemic strategies, was the subject of a Sun report that he was paid by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario for giving an opinion against reopening schools in September, 2020. The medical community and others, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, immediately rallied around the epidemiologist under the hashtag #ThankYouDavidFisman.

Fisman called it a "hit piece" that was a distraction from the government's pandemic failures.


Jack Hauen


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