Windsor

Ontario Health defends hiring private company for COVID-19 farm testing

Ontario Health is defending its decision to hire private mobile testing company Switch Health to swab farm workers in Windsor-Essex for COVID-19.

Local politician is questioning ties between Ford government and Switch Health

Switch Health's mobile rapid testing unit was sent to swab agri-farm workers in the Windsor-Essex region through a contract provided by the province. (Switch Health Inc.)

Ontario Health is defending its decision to hire private mobile testing company Switch Health to swab farm workers in Windsor-Essex. 

The health agency is responding to criticism from Essex NDP MPP Taras Natyshak, who called out Doug Ford's Conservative government for outsourcing testing to a private company. Natyshak was not only concerned about us of a private company for the service, but also about a potential conflict of interest for Switch Health lobbyist Jeff Silverstein, who formerly worked as communications director for the Progressive Conservative party. 

Natyshak said the details of the contract were not clear and he worried that removing the task from public health agencies would create accountability and transparency issues. 

Ontario Health did not comment on ties between Switch Health and the Ford government, but in an emailed statement to CBC News it said it is the agency accountable for the process and selected Switch Health's COVID-19 mobile testing service from 15 potential vendors "in light of the on-site testing needs on farms in the Windsor-Essex region." 

Temporary foreign workers from Mexico plant strawberries on a farm in Mirabel, Que., on May 6. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The statement said that Ontario Health evaluated proposals from each potential vendor against standard criteria, which includes the ability to:

  • Establish a requisition, completion and verification process.
  • Enforce social distancing protocols.
  • Travel to facilities to conduct testing.
  • Support gathering specimens. 

"Switch Health conducted the majority, though not all, on-site testing in Windsor-Essex," reads the statement. "Approximately 2,800 agri-farm workers have been tested to date...approximately 1,800 of these on-site at farms."

Swabs were then analyzed in London labs.

In response to Ontario Health comments, Natyshak said the government still hasn't shared anything about who the company is, the payment it will receive, if the contract was tendered or sole-sourced and the terms of the contract.

NDP MPP for Essex Taras Natyshak says there are many red flags when it comes to the Ford government outsourcing COVID-19 testing to private company Switch Health. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

He said he's also worried that Switch Health does not have the experience to handle pandemic services, questioning how the company has scaled up to match the number of tests needed. 

Natyshak said he has asked the auditor general to investigate and will be following up on the results and won't hesitate to file freedom of information requests to get the answers he's looking for. 

But, he added, that too is part of the problem with awarding the contract to a private company.

"That indicates even more cautionary tales around using private healthcare providers [because] when you do want to get answers, you do have to FOI it rather than actually asking the elected officials and ministry representatives for clear information." 

Local health unit not concerned 

At the health unit's daily briefing Tuesday, Windsor-Essex's medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said he is "not concerned" about a private company stepping in to pick up the work. 

Infectious diseases specialist Allison McGeer, who works at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital said she also doesn't think the public has any reason to be concerned as long as the company is capable. 

Infectious diseases specialist Allison McGeer from Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital said she's not concerned that the government is getting help from private companies. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

"What we need is good service to the migrant workers and better protection for them and there isn't anything fundamentally wrong with a private company doing testing," she said. "What's clearly important is that it is coordinated with the overall plan for protection of migrant workers and maintaining the farming business." 

She added that it's important the health unit is still in charge of who is organizing and conducting the testing.

McGeer said resources are slim and there's not enough people in public health to accomplish everything.

"We are in the middle of a pandemic, we do need to get things done," she said. 

Natyshak blames the need for extra resources in public health on the current government saying it's "directly as a result of the cuts that Doug Ford and the PC government have made to public health over the last two years." 

He says he thinks there is the capacity for public health agencies to take on the testing and says he would like to see a more coordinated approach of resources. 

Corrections

  • Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Public Health Ontario as the agency involved in selecting Switch Health to conduct private testing. In fact, it was Ontario Health.
    Jul 16, 2020 9:00 AM ET

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