The head of the Ontario public health agency is on temporary retirement for personal medical reasons amid the fight against COVID-19, the Star learned.
Dr. Peter Donnelly, President and Chief Executive Officer of Public Health Ontario, won praise last Friday for his calm and detailed presentation on the number of cases and deaths that could occur in the province according to computer models.
He will be replaced on an interim basis by Colleen Geiger, who is the head of strategy, stakeholder relations, information and agency knowledge, a senior government source told The Star.
The source said Donnelly’s medical condition was “not related to COVID-19”.
Another senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, praised Donnelly.
“We love this guy,” said the insider, noting that Prime Minister Doug Ford was impressed with Donnelly’s candor and skill during last week’s national television announcement on COVID-19’s sober screenings of the ‘Ontario.
Two other executives – Dr. Vanessa Allen, chief of medical microbiology, and Dr. Shelley Deeks, chief of health protection – will have more prominent roles within the agency during Donnelly’s absence, said one government source.
At the very beginning of the fear of COVID-19, when the virus was limited to China, Allen was invited to brief the media with Dr. David Williams, Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario, on how tests have been performed.
Donnelly’s departure follows the recruitment of a convenience store, former Toronto chief of public health Dr. David McKeown, to help manage pandemic tactics and strategy, as the Star reported Wednesday.
Sources told the Star that McKeown will lead a panel of experts on the next steps.
Ford reported on Wednesday that its “patience waned” after the province cleared its test book for people suspected of having COVID-19 last Friday, but did not take advantage of the unused capacity to test more people, especially residents of nursing homes, front-line health care workers and first responders.
Ontario can now process 13,000 samples a day, but over several days it only produced a third or a quarter of that number, leaving health experts puzzled by the missed opportunity to better understand how the new coronavirus is spreading.
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In addition, recent tests have revealed a higher percentage of positives in the past, indicating that the virus is taking up more space, making the importance of testing even more crucial. A new test protocol will be released on Friday.
Ford said it called Health Ontario CEO Matt Anderson to discuss the issue, which insiders say is a signal that Anderson is now a key figure for the Premier because the number of cases in the province has exceeded 6000 and the number of deaths has exceeded 200. Health Ontario is the umbrella organization responsible for all elements of the provincial health system.