Local MPP concerned Ontario hired private company for COVID-19 farm testing

A local politician says it’s very “concerning” that Doug Ford’s government has employed a third-party company to perform COVID-19 testing on farms in Windsor-Essex. 

The company that will perform testing hired lobbyist Jeff Silverstein, a former PC senior staffer

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)

A local politician says it's very "concerning" that Doug Ford's government has employed a third-party company to perform COVID-19 testing on farms in Windsor-Essex. 

Switch Healthcare, a Canadian digital healthcare company, will perform testing in the region. The company, according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Health, was identified by Ontario Health as a testing partner "as part of a competitive process" held in June. 

But Essex's NDP MPP Taras Natyshak said he sees a number of red flags —  primarily due to ties Switch lobbyist Jeff Silverstein has with Premier Ford. 

Silverstein previously worked as the communications director for the Progressive Conservative party and ran OntarioNewsNow — a platform Ford uses to share updates from his government. 

Not only that, but Natyshak said there's a "whole host of issues" that arise with awarding the contract to a private company. 

"Their answer to our region's crisis is to outsource what should be the responsibility of public health and the Ministry of Health to a company that no one knows anything about," he said. 

Natyshak said the government hasn't shared anything about who the company is, if the contract was tendered or sole-sourced, the terms of the contract, payment, along with whose responsibility it is to oversee the company. 

He's also worried that Switch does not have the experience to handle pandemic services. 

Minister of Health Christine Elliott says the government is working as quickly as it can to test migrant workers and isolate those who are sick so they can stop the spread of the virus. (Government of Ontario )

The MPP for Essex raised these concerns during a meeting at Queen's Park Monday, but was told that the government has "put all of their forces together" to prioritize the needs of migrant workers. 

Natyshak said he did not feel that his questions were fully answered. 

Local health unit not concerned 

CBC News reached out to Switch Health for comment. The company said to contact Ontario Health. Ontario Health did not respond in time for publication. 

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

"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." 

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)

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

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. 

At the health unit's daily briefing, 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. 

But Natyshak said he'd rather see a coordinated approach of public health resources and have the province use nurses in the region to help. He also wants more transparency.

"My hope is that [the government] provides some answers and accountability for us," he said. 

In particular, he wants the government to explain how the company was chosen and what processes Switch will use to test workers.