Ontario’s government has tabled a motion that would replace the province’s top public health doctor.
Health Minister Christine Elliott says the province is moving forward with a successor to Dr. David Williams that will see Dr. Kieran Moore take over the role.
Moore currently serves as the top doctor at the Kingston-area public health unit and is expected to take over as Ontario’s chief medical officer of health on June 26.
“Dr. Moore’s years of experience working in public health will be crucial as we begin to gradually lift public health measures,” said Elliott. “I would like to thank Dr. Williams for his dedication to safeguarding the health and safety of Ontarians during his many years of service.”
Elliott expressed her gratitude for Williams’ “experienced leadership” heading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams had been slated to retire in September, but his last day has been pushed up by several months. He became chief medical officer under the previous Liberal government in February 2016. Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government reappointed him in November.
Regarding the decision, Elliott said Monday that Dr. Williams “is ready to retire” calling Dr. Moore the “logical choice” as a replacement.
“Dr. Williams is doing this entirely on his own,” said Elliot. “This is coming at his choice.”
Williams said it had been an honour to serve in the role.
“I also want to thank the people of Ontario for the resilience they have displayed throughout this pandemic and for the support they have shown me in these challenging times,” he said in a statement on Sunday.
Elliott says Moore will start working with Williams on June 7 to ensure a smooth transition, saying the Ford government has “no regrets” about keeping Williams on as long as they did.
In his own statement, Moore said being considered for the new role was a “great honour.”
“I would remain steadfast in my commitment to fight COVID-19,” Moore said. “I would provide all necessary advice to the government to ensure the health and safety of all Ontarians.”
While the province praised his leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, critics have taken aim at his rambling communication style and questioned his ability to stand up to Ford.
Ontario’s COVID-19 Long-Term Care Commission lambasted Williams’ response during the early days of the crisis.
The government-appointed commission said Williams and the government repeatedly ignored the warnings of scientists, doctors, local public health officials and even the minister of long-term care.
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario had been calling for his ouster almost since the start of the pandemic, saying Williams failed to grasp how serious the situation would become.
Doris Grinspun, head of the association, said many of his decisions appeared to have been politically motivated.
“Either he didn’t have the foresight to use the precautionary principle from the beginning and throughout the pandemic, or he didn’t have the character to say to the premier, ‘This is the way it needs to be’,” Grinspun said on Sunday.
Grinspun said she was delighted with Moore’s appointment, calling the choice “brilliant.”
Other critics voiced concern about Williams’ handling of issues beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zoe Dodd, with the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said Williams failed to come to grips with the opioid crisis. In some communities, she said, overdose deaths have outstripped pandemic fatalities under his watch.
“Dr. Williams has been negligent in his role,” Dodd said on social media. “When COVID hit, we all knew that this man was going to be a puppet for (Ford).”
Dr. Moore: ‘A mastery of disease surveillance’
Moore has a long record in public health and emergency medicine. He has been medical officer of health for Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health since July 1, 2017.
He has received praise for mitigating the worst of the pandemic in his region — particularly in nursing homes — by taking decisive action such as mandating lockdowns and the use of protective gear.
“From a COVID standpoint, he knows the data very well,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch told the Globe and Mail. “He’s up to date. He knows what’s happening all over the world. And he’s great to work with.”
By the time Moore officially begins his post, Ontario will be well into the summer and likely just ahead of Step 2 of its reopening plan, which is tentatively slated to begin by early July.
“He’s been a very effective advocate for making sure that we’re doing a good job with surveillance at the border,” Irfan Dhalla, physician and vice-president with the Unity Health Toronto network of hospitals told the Globe and Mail.
“That’s an area that’s going to be increasingly important over the coming months.”
The announcement of Williams’ departure comes as a reluctant Ford struggles with whether to send children back to school for the final weeks of the academic year. Williams, along with most of his counterparts, has said classes could resume safely.
Other experts, however, warn COVID-19 still poses a significant threat. Ford himself has expressed concerns over new variants and a projected case jump if in-person classes resume.
That marked a departure for the premier, who has previously voiced strong support for Williams and even asked him to delay his pending retirement to remain at the helm of the province’s pandemic response.
Last November, Ford was quoted as saying, “I do not believe in changing a dance partner in the middle of a dance, especially when he’s a great dancer.”
New Democrat Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath called it “fishy” another person in a COVID-19 leadership position was leaving before the pandemic was over.
She noted former general Rick Hillier, initially in charge of the province’s vaccine rollout, left his post in March.
Among other duties, the chief medical officer advises the health sector and government on public health matters. The appointment normally lasts five years, with a second five-year term possible.
Files from The Canadian Press were used in this report