‘Dangerous’: Ontario lab closures would put lives at risk, workers warn

Click to play video: 'OPSEU president calls on Ontario government not to close public health testing labs'
OPSEU president calls on Ontario government not to close public health testing labs
Ontario Public Service Employees Union president JP Hornick speaks at a press conference Wednesday held to sound the alarm over what the union says is the Ontario government's plans to close six public health testing labs. – Apr 17, 2024

Lab workers are warning about the potential for public health disasters if the Ontario government follows through with recommendations to shutter more than half of the province’s publicly-funded testing sites.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) says members working at six Public Health Ontario (PHO) labs have been told about plans to close the facilities, although there has been no official word from the Ford government.

A value-for-money audit released by Ontario’s auditor general in December recommended closing six of the province’s 11 PHO labs.

“Much of our work happens behind the scenes — unless there is a crisis, many people may not even realize that our labs exist,” said long-time PHO employee Casey McGuire at a press conference held with union officials and opposition MPPs Wednesday.

“Until a disaster like Walkerton or a health crisis like COVID-19 emerges, our work goes unseen.”

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Seven people died and thousands were sickened after e. coli O157:H7 bacteria was found in Walkerton, Ont.’s water supply in 2000.

The union says the proposed changes would close labs in Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie, Orillia, Hamilton, Kingston, and Peterborough.

As well as testing water from wells, beaches, and public and private water supplies, PHO labs also process medical tests for diseases like HIV, syphilis, tuberculosis, influenza, COVID-19 and West Nile virus.

The labs collect and process thousands of water samples and medical tests a day, according to the union.

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Sudbury MPP Jamie West said centralizing the labs will add hours of travel time for samples, disproportionately affecting rural and northern communities and increasing the risks of contamination.

“We cannot afford to close down more than half of our public labs and believe that everything will be okay,” the New Democrat said.

The auditor general’s report said roughly 70 per cent of PHO’s $220 million in expenditures reported in 2022/23 went to its lab programs.

It found the PHO labs were “not operating efficiently” with three of the 11 sites performing tests on only nine to 20 per cent of the samples and specimens they receive, with the remaining being transferred to other sites.

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The report didn’t identify the labs but did say operating costs at each site have ranged between $5 and $10 million over the last five years.

But McGuire said the numbers don’t tell the whole story because samples are sometimes shipped between labs due to staffing issues or because a specific lab specializes in a specific type of testing.

Kingston’s lab, for example, takes care of virology testing for things like measles for the entire eastern region, she said.

“So you  could have a lab that they’re sending 91 per cent of their labs elsewhere, but (the audit) doesn’t say what percentage of the testing is coming back into those labs,” she said.

“(The audit) is saying what’s going out, but it doesn’t say what they’re actually keeping.”

When asked about plans to close PHO labs a spokesperson from the ministry of health said there’s been no “decisions about changes to the provincial well-water testing program; including which laboratories conduct testing of water samples.”

The spokesperson pointed to answers the health minister gave in response to opposition questions during question period earlier this week.

“I want to be very clear: There have been no changes,” Health Minister Sylvia Jones said at Queen’s Park on Tuesday.

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“People who want to get their well water tested — and there are thousands across rural Ontario, including in my own riding—take those tests to their public health unit. They get tested. They get those results. That continues.”

Workers from the potentially-affected labs delivered a petition with roughly 9,000 signatures in opposition to Queen’s Park Wednesday.

Pointing to their importance during COVID-19, OPSEU president JP Hornick said PHO lab testing capacity should be expanded, not cut.

“If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that public health should never be taken for granted,” Hornick said in a statement.

“Like many choices made by this government, if Premier Ford decides to shutter the doors of these (six) labs it will be short-sighted and dangerous.”

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