Ontario’s auditor general says her office will be reviewing the provincial government’s selection of hot spot postal codes as it takes a closer look at the Ford government’s entire COVID-19 immunization plan.
Last week, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath reached out to Ontario’s auditor general, Bonnie Lysyk, requesting that she investigate how hot spot postal codes were selected by the provincial government.
“The government has not been transparent. And they haven’t clearly shown where their decision-making is coming from,” Horwath told CP24 on Wednesday.
“Postal codes showed up on that list as hot spots where they were nowhere near hot spots and then other postal code areas that certainly did justify being on that list were left out. We need to know why.”
In response to Horwath’s request, Lysyk said Ontario’s COVID-19 Immunization Strategy and Implementation has been selected as an audit candidate for the 2021-22 audit cycle.
“As part of this work, we will be reviewing data used in determining the strategy used for the distribution of vaccines,” read Lysyk’s letter, which was released by the NDP on Tuesday.
The Ford government has maintained that the postal codes were selected based on analysis from Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
But in a statement released last week, Robert Steiner, the communications director for the science table, said the postal codes were used in an analysis to look at the disparity between COVID-19 hot spots and other neighbourhoods and were not meant to identify neighbourhoods that should be prioritized in the vaccine rollout.
“Our aim was to illustrate the need to target both age and neighbourhood in vaccine roll-out; not to list specific neighbourhoods for prioritization,” Steiner said.
“We shared our scientific argument with the government, but we understand that the government itself decided which neighbourhoods to actually prioritize.”
The Ford government’s selection came under scrutiny following the release of a CBC story that analyzed data from the 114 hot spot postal codes and found that some appeared to have been less impacted by COVID-19 than others that did not make the list.
Four of the five postal codes referenced in the story are in ridings represented by PC MPPs.
The Ford government has denied any political interference, maintaining that the postal codes were selected by non-partisan experts.
In a heated exchange between Horwath and Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott during Question Period on Tuesday, Horwath suggested that the province did not listen to its own experts when it designated certain areas as hot spots.
"They claimed that the decision they made last week was directly from the advice of their science table recommendations. My question is did the government actually implement the recommendations on the hot spots that came forward from the science table, yes or no," Horwath asked.
Elliott conceded that some of the postal codes identified as hot spots by the science table were not included on the list.
"We did receive recommendations from medical experts on the identifications of the hot spots. Some of the hot posts we didn't proceed with because we need to take into consideration other information such as hospitalization in the past, ICU admissions in the past, unfortunately deaths in the past, vaccine hesitancy, issues with respect to language, socio-economic issues as well, barriers that were preventing people from coming forward to receive vaccinations," Elliott said.
"So yes, we did receive the information from medical experts. We then added in the additional information, which was what ultimately ended up in the postal codes we identified as hot spots."
When Horwath questioned Elliott on who changed the list and if they will "change it back," Elliott angrily replied, "What I would say to the leader of the official opposition... is someone is talking about something they know nothing about."