Hamilton, Ont., mayor Fred Eisenberger believes premier Doug Ford was “caught off guard” when the city said it would send the province a $2 million bill for new workers to help the public health department through the ongoing pandemic.
The city is planning to bring on 92 temporary full-time employees to help increase COVID-19 testing and to help public health reopen a variety of programs and services that have been suspended during the pandemic.
Eisenberger says the bill is directed at the province’s $100 million contingency fund announced in early March to pay for equipment such as testing kits and personal protective gear, as well as hiring more health-care staff to offset COVID-19 related costs faced by regional health departments.
In his pandemic press conference in Vaughan on Friday, Ford said charging the expense back to the province was “no way to operate.”
“You can’t hire a whole bunch of people and then turn to someone else to pay for it” said Ford.
“It doesn’t work that way in the private sector and it doesn’t work that way in the public sector.”
Ford went on to say that the mayor should have “called him” before “spending a few million dollars.”
On Tuesday, Eisenberger said the city had been in contact with the premier’s office and said they “understand and agree” that the expenses are legitimate and likely to be covered by the emergency orders.
“And I’m confident that the premier will clarify that before too long,” said Eisenberger.
However, in a statement to Global News, the ministry of health said they had not received a request from the city for the hirings as of July 15.
“In terms of one-time funding requests, the public health unit’s COVID-19 costs should be submitted to the ministry,” said spokesperson Alex Hilkene from the ministry.
“The one-time requests would have to be specific asks based on eligibility criteria. The officials have not received the detailed request from Hamilton for the 75 nurses, nor have they reviewed the public health unit’s costs as part of this process.”
Last week, Hamilton’s medical officer of health, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, said the pandemic forced public health workers to set their normal jobs aside to respond to the virus.
“In terms of us even trying to get some of those other very time-sensitive public health programs and services up and running, it’s very difficult to do,” said Richardson during Friday’s board of health meeting.
“We don’t have the staff, we don’t have the resources that we need to continue to respond to COVID-19 and get our public health services re-opened.”
Eisenberger said it’s clear that a number of public health services and programs will suffer if they don’t hire the extra staff.
“We will be foregoing work on pest control, school dental, vision screening, school programs …. healthy growth and development programs, sexual health clinics, smoking prevention — all of those would have to be set aside because you don’t have the resources to focus on both,” said Eisenberger.
Ward 12 councillor Lloyd Ferguson was one of a handful who voted against the proposal during Friday’s meeting due to a lack of written commitment from the province that it would be funding the extra hires.
“I think the public would understand if we paused pest control,” said Ferguson.
“We’re not even sure that schools are going back in September, so let’s pause this service — for the dental and vision screening, sexual health clinics reduced to one day per week at the downtown site only, and smoking prevention.
“Just pause it while we get through the pandemic. I think the public would understand that. We just can’t keep spending. We’ve got to start curtailing a few things because these are different times.”
Ward 9 councillor Brad Clark had introduced an amendment calling to hold off on approving the temporary hires until the city had a written commitment from the province for the funding, but Dr. Richardson that would mean they wouldn’t be able to access the funding until November at the earliest.
That amendment failed on a vote of 11-3, with only Ferguson, Clark and Ward 15’s Judi Partridge in favour.
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.
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