Niagara's school COVID-19 measures to proceed despite concerns by Ontario's chief medical officer

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health sent a letter to Niagara’s top doctor saying the regional health unit's stringent measures in schools could “lead to increased harms to the children and youth.” Dr. Mustafa Hirji says the region is still going ahead with its plans.

Niagara Region Public Health says it appreciates feedback but won't loosen its measures

Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's chief medical officer of health, left, sent a letter to Dr. Mustafa Hirji, Niagara Region's medical officer of health, with concerns about the stricter public health measures in Niagara schools. (Evan Mitsui/CBC and Niagara Region/Twitter)

Niagara's top doctor says the region will go ahead with more stringent COVID-19 measures at its schools, despite a letter from Ontario's chief medical officer of health arguing they could "lead to increased harms to the children and youth."

Dr. Mustafa Hirji said that while he "appreciates the feedback," Niagara Region Public Health will proceed with plans "in order to give children, teachers and other school staff additional protection."

The clash between medical officers follows the Jan. 15 letter from Dr. Kieran Moore to Hirji. The letter is critical of three measures Hirji had planned for schools.

Screen shots of the message were shared by some health professionals on Twitter on Thursday, including epidemiologist Dr. David Fisman, who described it as "dressing down [a] highly competent" local medical officer of health.

"Hall of shame candidate? I would think so," he wrote.

The letter also drew a statement from Niagara-area NDP MPPs

"Dr. Hirji should be lauded for his initiative, not attacked by Ontario's Chief Medical Officer," it read in part. "Dr. Hirji was right to take extra measures and [Premier] Ford should not be trying to make schools in Niagara less safe."

Moore's letter said Hirji put the measures in place without any consultation with the province and other medical officers of health. It was sent days before most schools in Ontario returned to in-person learning this week.

Niagara Region Public Health said Hirji was not available for an interview on Thursday, but shared a statement attributed to him.

"Public Health is building on the solid foundation set by the province with some additional local measures that reflect our local context and the local patterns of spread we have seen in schools," it reads.

Moore highlights 3 Niagara precautions

The first precaution for Niagara schools was having classes monitor C2 levels and installing HEPA units in classrooms with readings of over 800 parts per million.

In the letter, Moore writes the province isn't aware of a correlation between the viral load and CO2. 

Moore said Hirji stated he didn't know how any improvements from upgrading HVAC systems and didn't know how many HEPA units were in local schools. 

He adds Hirji placed the expectation on schools and the local board of health to cover the cost of any extra HEPA units required without speaking to the board of health.

The second precaution Moore addresses is dismissing classroom cohorts for a week, despite the province saying cohorts won't be dismissed and students only need to isolate for five days.

Moore writes that Niagara is the only place in Canada doing so.

"The negative consequences of school dismissal and closure are significant to the mental, physical, social and educational well-being of children and youth."

He adds it especially affects kids with single parents and those from marginalized communities.

The third precaution Moore flags in the letter is Niagara's requirement for kids who can't wear a mask to provide a medical note.

Moore said those notes aren't covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan and would be paid out of pocket, creating an inequity for poorer families.

Niagara won't loosen measures

When asked about the letter during a press conference, Moore said he was "seeking clarity" from Hirji and wants a consistent approach across Ontario.

Moore said those talks are ongoing, but noted the measures "could have increased the amount of absenteeism in students, so it seemed to go contrary to the recommendations of the science table, and our pediatric experts and our education experts."

Niagara public health said it "strongly supports the provincial government's decision to reopen schools to in-person learning."

"We appreciate the feedback of the chief medical officer of health regarding these measures and have discussed them with our school board partners," read Hirji's statement.

"We have adapted some of the details of how our recommended measures will be implemented in consideration of the easing workload on our school boards, but will be proceeding with these measures in order to give children, teachers and other school staff additional protection as we successfully resume in-person schooling."

CBC Hamilton contacted the District School Board of Niagara and the Niagara Catholic District School Board for comment.

Hirji has faced criticism for his stances before. In July, he said the U.S.-Canada border should stay closed until the fall, which was in opposition to calls from the mayor and businesses to reopen.

Anti-public health measure groups have also targeted Hirji. In December, a group of protesters gathered outside his home with flashlights and megaphones.

The Niagara Region is among those that saw hospitals pause vaccine mandates for staff due to a surge in Omicron cases.

With files from Dan Taekema