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Dr. David Williams defends his record during the COVID-19 pandemic

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health says some critics don't understand the challenges.
2021-05-20 david williams SS
Dr. David Williams retires from public health service on Jun. 25, 2021 (file photo)

TORONTO — On the eve of his retirement as Ontario's top doctor, David Williams says the effort to control the COVID-19 pandemic has gone better than he had expected.

"I think it's gone quite well," Dr. Williams said in an interview Tuesday with TBNewswatch.

He retires on Friday from the post of chief medical officer of health, several months after his five-year appointment in February 2016 was scheduled to expire.

Williams will be succeeded by Dr. Kieran Moore, currently the medical officer of health for the Kingston area.

His legacy of public service includes 18 years as medical officer of health for the Thunder Bay District Health Unit during two separate terms, starting in 1991.

During the pandemic, some critics have faulted him for his communication style, and for not pushing the government to impose stronger restrictions in advance of an upsurge in COVID cases earlier this year.

The head of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario was particularly harsh, charging that Williams lacked foresight at the outset, and appeared incapable of standing up to Premier Ford.

As part of her critique of the provincial government's handling of the crisis last November, Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk also suggested Williams had not led the response.  

Williams defended the job he's done, saying some people don't understand the challenges the pandemic presented for Ontario.

"These are uncharted waters. There's no road map. When you try to compare Ontario to any other province, you can't do the comparison," he said.

He cited the province's sheer size and multicultural diversity as unique factors in dealing with a public health crisis, "having nearly 15 million people, [and] a centre like the Greater Toronto Area that normally has almost 200,000 people coming in internationally every day. Even during the pandemic we dropped down to 38,000 people a day. Other provinces dropped down to nearly nothing."

Williams noted that the infection and death rates in Ontario were far lower than other jurisdictions – such as in the U.S. – which he credited largely to teamwork within the public health network and to the abundance of experts that no other province has.

While acknowledging that "people are hurting in many ways, and not just from COVID," he said that for a lot of Ontarians "it's been disrupted, [but] it hasn't been a dismantling. They have been able to work around it. For some it's been almost like a nuisance rather than a crisis."

'We've come out a lot better than I anticipated,'  Williams says

Williams said that after three waves of COVID-19, and with the risk factors that Ontario faced, "we've come out a lot better than I anticipated."

He pointed to the province's pandemic plan which projected that a minimum of 20 to 30 per cent of the population would test positive.

"That means instead of 570,000 cases, we should have by now 2.5 million to 3.6 million people positive, and three per cent of those are going to die. We haven't had anywhere near those kinds of numbers." 

Williams suggested that his "handful of critics" have tended to say the same things again and again, sometimes getting personal, which he described as unprofessional on their part.

"That's far outweighed by all the positive commentary I get. Their commentary about the lack of communication?...I am overwhelmed by the number of emails I get about how much they appreciate the clear, concise and consistent communication that I've undertaken over the last year and a half. It's totally opposite of what these critics would like to comment on."

He said those who have spoke out against him basically disagree with his message.

"People are allowed to have a difference of opinion, as long as they have something to back it up. I found that a lot of the assertions lacked detail and numbers, but at the same time I listened to them."

Williams added that there may be six or seven people that don't feel great about how he's handled the pandemic, but there are "800 or 900" others whom he is consulting all the time, and who have positive input.

"I don't get too worried about that aspect. I think they have to assess their own performance and see what they did. Because in a pandemic and crisis, if you're not with the program then you're against the program. It's better to be at the table and contribute with suggestions."

He maintained that his style of leadership has enabled him to win the strong respect of Premier Ford and his cabinet.

"Most of the time, my advice was widely taken seriously," Williams said. "Even when the premier said at times 'This is going to be tough decision, one of the hardest ones to make, but I understand where you're coming from, and I'll go out and say it .'"

He believes that when the pandemic is over, Ontario may reflect further on the risk of being so dependent on foreign suppliers for critical items.

Williams said what bothered him the most during the pandemic was those occasions when resources were not available, particularly vaccine supplies," but in a global reality some things are under your control, some things are not under your control."

He's pleased, though, with the current COVID-19 vaccination rate of about 75 per cent to date, particularly in comparison with historical flu vaccine rates which he said have never exceeded 47 per cent of the population.

Williams also said vaccines for children aged five to 12 may be available this fall.

He expects that by late summer, Ontario will return to "a new normal" in which COVID-19 will be in the background rather than the foreground, albeit with the awareness that new strains of the virus may continue to pose a challenge.

"I think we're in a very good position." he said, but "the public is much more alert to the risks of infectious diseases. I think people will be less likely to congregate in large crowds for a period of time at least."

Williams plans to take some time off to enjoy his retirement with his children and grandchildren, and work on improvements at his summer cottage.

As he told his wife, this is the first time in 40 years he won't be on call.

Ultimately, Williams hopes to return to Nepal to visit a hospital he worked at for 10 years earlier in his career.

But COVID-19 won't let go of him quite yet, as he needs to participate in some internal reviews of Ontario's response to the pandemic, starting in just a couple of weeks.

Gary Rinne

About the Author: Gary Rinne

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Gary started part-time at Tbnewswatch in 2016 after retiring from the CBC
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