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Ottawa Public Health wrapping up COVID-19 operations, cutting pandemic staff

The Ottawa COVID-19 vaccine community clinic at the Nepean Sportsplex. (CTV News Ottawa) The Ottawa COVID-19 vaccine community clinic at the Nepean Sportsplex. (CTV News Ottawa)
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Ottawa Public Health will lay off most of its COVID-19 staff by the end of the year and wrap up its immunization programming at the end of March, as the Ontario government stops reimbursing for extraordinary costs related to the pandemic.

As the board of health prepares to finalize its $87.5 million budget for 2024 tonight, the health unit says the budget will include a winding down of its COVID-19 operations in the new year. The 2024 budget includes $6.8 million in funding to wrap up the health unit's COVID-19 response and immunization program in the first quarter of 2024.

A report for the board of health, presented by medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches, notes the provincial government has announced that as of Jan. 1, 2024, it will no longer reimburse for costs relating to COVID-19 programs and services.

Etches writes Ottawa Public Health has already decreased staffing levels supported by provincial COVID-19 funding from 4,400 employees in January 2022 to 1,100 staff this fall, and more than two thirds of the remaining staff will leave the health unit by Dec. 31.

"It is quite something to remember that from a team of about 500 full-time employees in March 2020, Ottawa Public Health rapidly increased our workforce sevenfold to more than 4,400 full-time equivalent employees at the peak of our pandemic response," Etches said at Monday's Board of Health meeting.

The report says only 105 full-time employee positions will be available as of January 2024 to support the final wrap-up of COVID-19 operation. Etches said OPH plans to be down to 500 full-time employees again by the spring.

"The largest number of that expanded workforce were focused on immunization and we've seen the demand for COVID-19 vaccination has come down, and so we're able to meet that demand in the community now," she said.

Ottawa Public Health reported last week that COVID-19 wastewater surveillance showed "very high levels" of COVID-19 in the community, along with high levels of RSV and influenza. The COVID-19 per cent positivity rate was 21.4 per cent.

With COVID-19 still circulating in the community, the health unit will continue offering COVID-19 vaccinations into the new year.

"However, given the continued threat to populations facing greater barriers to immunization (e.g., people living in long-term care facilities, new immigrants and refugees), OPH will continue offering COVID-19 immunization until the end of March 2024," the report says.

Ottawa Public Health received $65.9 million in one-time COVID-19 funding from the provincial government in 2022 and the 2023 budget set aside $51 million in funding, according to the OPH draft budget.

The 2024 draft budget includes submitting one-time funding requests to the Ministry of Health to support post-pandemic services provided through neighbourhood health and wellness hubs, including immunization programs.

Etches says Ottawa Public Health undertook a review of all administrative and operation elements of its programs, and the 2024 budget focuses on "returning to the full scope of public health programs and services."

"The scope and scale of public health services will be guided by OPH’s multi-year strategic objectives, which include: bringing public health services and interventions closer to communities facing the greatest barriers; promoting mental health and substance use health while reducing stigma; influencing changes in the built, natural and social environments that promote health and wellbeing and address the impacts of climate change; collaborating with healthcare partners to strengthen clinical prevention; and fostering a diverse, inclusive, equitable, and healthy workforce grounded in a culture of learning and growth," Etches writes.

Ottawa Public Health will have 511 permanent FTE positions in 2024 to support provincially mandated programs and services.

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