Dr. Paul Hébert Talks Emergency Preparedness
The Ontario Public Health Emergencies Science Advisory Committee (OPHESAC), formerly the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, has begun work to enhance the province’s capacity to respond to public health emergencies with the best available evidence.
Now settled into his appointment as the Scientific Director of OPHESAC, Dr. Paul Hébert, professor at the University of Ottawa, palliative care physician, and investigator at Bruyère Research Institute, talks about how the province is looking to tackle emergency preparedness. He sits down with us to answer a few questions.
OPHESAC has grown out of our experience with COVID-19. Can you talk about this new direction?
The Ontario Science Advisory Table was originally assembled to provide modeling expertise at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but quickly expanded its scope to provide evidence-informed recommendations to the government, public health officials, and the public when it was needed most. At the start of the pandemic comprehensive surveillance, reporting, and advisory mechanisms were not in place.
Last summer a decision was made to integrate independent science advice into Public Health Ontario by creating the Science Advisory Committee and Secretariat. Our collective remit is to provide the best evidence-informed advice to generate actionable recommendations for or decision makers, our many stakeholders, and the public. The Committee’s mandate covers emergency preparedness, response, and recovery to all public health emergencies, not just COVID-19.
To give you a sense of the varied scope, we started by tackling two areas. First, what would be the best approach to yearly surveillance and monitoring of respiratory viruses? This past fall again reminded us that established respiratory viruses beyond COVID-19 can surprise us. Second, is how best to monitor and respond to heat-related emergencies. We have already had two major heat events in Canada, both with important health consequences. It is just a matter of time before Ontarians experience a similar event, especially given climate change.
What is your role as Scientific Director in the day-to-day?
My job is to lead the Secretariat. Our team puts together the evidence reviews, supports stakeholder engagement, and consults and works with experts in Ontario and beyond to provide the best evidence and advice so that our Committee can formulate the best recommendations to guide our public health emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. We not only strive to put together actionable advice, but also to build community and strong networks of trusted experts and stakeholders we can call upon when we are faced with major public health threats.
In addition to a culture of evidence-informed and transparent decision making, we need to institutionalize this approach and make it sustainable, with adequate resources and working relationships. I see my job as guiding my team to build these structures, programs, and strategies.
What do you hope will be the legacy of this group and your work?
If we succeed, we will have built the information structures, and approaches to synthesize and make digestible all information needed to make sound recommendations and policies. This also mean getting the right people in the room and making sure that they are working with you when you need them. We need to build emergency response expertise and capacity. We also need to work the many others so that we do not duplicate efforts.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
I have learned that there are amazing people working very hard to prepare Ontario and the rest of Canada for the next emergency. I have also learned that these same experts and stakeholders would hope to learn from past experiences, be more efficient by avoiding duplication and better coordinate efforts between organizations and jurisdictions. We need to work collaboratively across our many Canadian and international jurisdictions, and not in silos, and that a focus on health equity is critical in all of our public health responses and programming.