Napanee Council opposes provincial plan to close region’s health lab

Public Health Ontario Laboratory on Barrie Street in Kingston. Kingstonist file photo.

Napanee Town Council has joined the voices opposing the provincial government’s plan to “streamline” water safety testing by closing 11 regional laboratories.

At the regular meeting of the Council of the Town of Greater Napanee on Tuesday, Apr. 30, 2024, Councillor Dave Pinnell drew attention to two letters opposing the provincial government’s move when he asked to discuss a letter “from the Kingston and Area Real Estate Association [entitled] ‘Help Us Protect Our Community’s Water.’”

He said the letter involved “[the fact] that there is a water testing lab on Barrie Street in Kingston. It’s one of 11 labs in Ontario. And this lab is being considered to be closed.”

Pinnell stressed that “this would have a huge impact, not only on the real estate industry, but also on anybody that has a rural well, as [the Kingston Regional Public Health Ontario Laboratory] provides free testing for E. coli and bacteria of wells so that we could have clean drinking water in rural areas. It’s very important that we lobby to have that remain open.”

“Just because it’s in Kingston, that does not mean it just services Kingston,” he pointed out. “It services Hastings, Lennox and Addington, and Frontenac counties. So they sent us a letter asking us to support them in this.”

Pinnell had a motion prepared to read to this effect, but there was a question.

Councillor Angela Hicks asked for clarification: “So Dave, if I want my water tested for my well, I can’t just drop it off in Napanee and it would go to Kingston?”

Pinnell explained, “You can drop it off at 99 [Advance Avenue], but we’re not quite sure where the lab would be if the one in Kingston closes. So right now, 99 Advance Avenue is a drop-off area for us locally, or you can always drive down to Barrie Street [in Kingston] to have it actually dropped off right at the lab. Right now, we’re not quite sure what will happen if it closes — if our water from here will be taken to a different lab or what not, or what’s going to happen. But we’re just right now trying to to ask the government to leave Barrie Street open.”

Pinnell was then allowed to make his motion “that Council send a letter of support to the president of the Kingston Area Real Estate Association. And further, a copy of the letter is to be sent to Premier Doug Ford, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Sylvia Jones, MPP of Hastings Lennox and Addington Ric Bresee, and MP of Hastings-Lennox and Addington Shelby Kramp-Neuman, and all remaining 443 Municipalities of Ontario.” This was seconded by Councillor Bob Norrie and passed unanimously.

Dave Pinnell (third from right) drew the council’s attention to the possible lab closure. Screen captured image.

Next, Pinnell asked Council to consider a nearly identical letter that had been sent by Loyalist Township. Pinnell moved that Council note that second letter and send a letter of support; this was seconded by Hicks and passed unanimously.

More than well water testing at stake

Kingstonist readers may recall that Dr. Piotr Oglaza, the Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) Medical Officer of Health (MOH), informed the KFL&A Board of Health of this issue at the board’s meeting in February 2024 and discussed the potential closure of the lab.

At that time, Oglaza reminded the board that the Office of the Auditor-General’s audit on Public Health Ontario, released in December 2023, included a discussion of Public Health Ontario’s recommendations to “streamline” regional laboratory sites, including the local Public Health Ontario Laboratory site in Kingston, and discontinue private well water testing across the province.

“To ‘streamline’ in this case means effectively to close,” stated Oglaza at the time.

He also clarified that the public should understand that KFL&A Public Health is separate from the laboratory in question; the latter is run by Public Health Ontario (PHO). But, he stressed, “this laboratory [is] a critical component of our health infrastructure in general; it handles testing, [and] it’s essential to provide timely diagnostic and surveillance services necessary for safeguarding public health.”

“To the best of our knowledge, neither local Public Health agencies nor residents of rural communities relying on well water testing currently done by Public Health Ontario laboratories have been consulted regarding the profound negative impact of these changes,” Oglaza said.

The closure of “our local Public Health Ontario laboratory in Kingston would have a significant negative effect,” he said, “impact[ing] local access to timely diagnostic services and also the timing and timeliness of decisions both in health care and in public health.”

This is not just about the convenience of well water testing, the MOH explained.

Oglaza pointed out that if there were cases of illness at a long-term care home, KFL&A Public Health might rely on “that very quick turnaround time and quick transport time to get the specimen to the lab, to get answers about whether [the home] is in an influenza outbreak — which then enables us to recommend additional intervention to control that outbreak through the deployment of antibiotic and antiviral medications.”

If testing took place in Toronto rather than locally, there would be a significant increase in turnaround time.

“This is a very concrete, specific example of how having that lab supporting our region is so critical,” Oglaza said emphatically.

The laboratory “also plays a vital role in detecting and responding to infectious diseases, monitoring health trends, and informing public health actions,” Oglaza said. For example, “a very prominent, critical role of this local laboratory showed during the COVID-19 response when we were able to provide rapid diagnostics and manage the pandemic. This local laboratory played a crucial role in that critical time, and its closure will severely undermine our ability to address any future public health emergency and outbreaks in a timely fashion.”

Oglaza pointed out that the closure “would also result in the loss of critical expertise and jobs in the area.” Furthermore, he said, the lab “serves as a hub for ongoing research and surveillance activities, contributing valuable insights that support decision-making at both local and regional levels” with its partnerships with public health units (like KFL&A Public Health or Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Public Health), as well as partnerships with post-secondary institution and hospital systems. The lab serves “over 570,000 residents in the area,” he said.

“Without access to these essential resources, we would face increased delays, as samples would need to be shipped hours away, [which would diminish] timeliness in public health actions during rapidly changing situations, and could lead to poor health outcomes for our residents,” said Oglaza. 

He also pointed out that the lab serves not only KFL&A but the broader region as well, noting that the “lab has, for a decade, supported the entire region of over 570,000 residents.”

As always, you can read full Council meeting agendas on Napanee’s civic web online, and watch meetings live or recorded on the town’s YouTube channel.

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